In Memoriam: Sheldon C. Plotkin, Ph.D., P.E. Served on Bridge the Gap Board for 46 Years

Dr. Sheldon C. Plotkin, Speaking at Santa Susana Field Laboratory Work Group Meeting, Oct. 1, 2014

Dr. Sheldon Plotkin, a mainstay of CBG and an unflagging force for science in the public interest, died April 11, 2020, at age 93. He played key roles in the shutdown of the Santa Susana Field Laboratory and the fight to clean it up. He served as an expert witness in the UCLA, Diablo Canyon, and San Onofre nuclear reactor cases. He was central to the establishment and operation of CBG’s longtime partner organization, the Southern California Federation of Scientists. In the fifties and sixties he fought a long and eventually successful fight against the McCarthy era’s withholding of security clearances. He was a gentle and modest man, yet he left behind a lifetime of work for justice, peace, and protection of this planet.

Tradition holds that the world is held together by thirty six righteous people at any one time, whose work is performed without calling attention to themselves. As with most traditions, this one is a bit wrong—there are more than thirty six such righteous ones, but, alas, not a huge number more. However, the rest of the tradition is spot on—what is needed is not charity but justice, and the highest form of justice is that which is done anonymously, done because the world needs it, not to feed the ego of the doer. Shel was one of those righteous ones who worked steadily and quietly, simply because it was right.

Shel had been a delegate to the Progressive Party Convention in 1948, when Franklin Roosevelt’s former Vice President, Henry Wallace, was nominated as their candidate for President. From early on, Shel paid a price for his progressive values, but never abandoned them.

An engineer, Plotkin worked in aerospace, only to have his security clearance revoked. The charges? It was alleged that his license plate number had been written down outside a Pete Seeger concert in Berkeley in the late 1940s, and that he knew his own brother-in-law. Both were true, Shel said cheerfully. The ACLU of San Francisco took up his case, and after years of litigation, he finally won in the landmark case Plotkin v. McNamara (the lawsuit took so long to be resolved that it went through several Secretaries of Defense as defendants).

However, regaining his security clearance didn’t resolve the employment difficulties. His training was in engineering, and the aerospace firms he worked for needed his skills. But he didn’t want to do work on weapons of war, and although there were civilian projects for which he was needed, the companies wanted someone who would also work on military contracts. So Shel ended up a private consultant, specializing in safety engineering.

I met Shel first at a block party he was organizing against the Vietnam War in his Mar Vista neighborhood. He and his late wife Millie joined the Bridge the Gap Board in 1974. Unlike many organizations whose boards are composed of wealthy people whose addition to the board is motivated largely by the money they might bring to the organization (and who often thus also bring views not wholly committed to the work of fighting inequality), Bridge the Gap has always had a board made up of people who share deeply the commitment to the mission. Shel served on the Board until his death.

During the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, Shel was part of a news conference Bridge the Gap held about the accident, in which he explained its seriousness and implications for the future of nuclear power. A few weeks later he testified before a committee of the state legislature, warning about the difficulties of providing effective enough backup systems to protect against catastrophic nuclear accidents, and how money spent on nuclear power was stealing funds from developing safe and sustainable renewable energy. He presciently warned about the dangers of radioactive waste:

May I make just one engineering comment, then about long-term nuclear waste disposal? Good engineering practice dictates that if one builds anything new, particularly something that we haven’t had to experience before, that to be good engineering design, we have to build at last one prototype and we have to test it through one life cycle. All right. When it comes to high level radioactive waste, one life cycle is at least 1,000 years. That’s the time it takes for the strontium 90 and cesium 137 to decay. I’m forgetting about the plutonium. That’s 250,000 years. So one needs at least a 1,000 year experiment in order to know with a high degree of confidence that what we’ve designed is adequate to take care of the radioactive waste. We’re not going to be able to do it as we all know. The more waste we create, the worse that problem gets.

And he concluded with some remarkably farsighted insights about the future depending on safe renewable energy:

Now, in conclusion I’d like to share some personal feelings about alternate energy systems. I think we’ve all agreed that nuclear power is not the way for the long term future. It’s only got a limited usefulness time wise, and we’re going to have to develop all kinds of alternate energy techniques which I had a list here that numbers 20 or 30. There’s more, I’m sure. And at the present time,, the nuclear industry is spending almost all of the money that’s required for the alternate energy system development. They’ve got talented engineers. They’ve got lots of equipment and so forth that I believe should be used on the more useful ways. I guess that concludes what I have to say.

Shel testified as an expert witness against the licensing of the San Onofre nuclear power plant. In both cases, he showed how completely unworkable the emergency plans were. Traffic was already impossible in Southern California, he said. Imagining one could evacuate much of the area along freeways that were already bumper-to-bumper was not credible, he testified. The utility claimed people would get out at 65 miles per hour with a mere couple of feet between each vehicle, with no accidents, breakdowns, or other failures, essentially assuming 100% of the freeway space was filled with 100% of cars traveling unimpeded at full speed. The utility’s model was unsupportable, he showed; yet the NRC, as captured a regulatory agency as there is, approved the license despite the requirement that there be a workable emergency plan. (I recently saw an old episode of The West Wing in which a nuclear power plant in Southern California, obviously modeled on San Onofre, suffered an accident, with evacuation on the jammed freeways failing precisely for the reasons about which Shel had testified.)

He testified again in the Diablo Canyon proceeding, showing that its emergency plan was similarly flawed. To get out of San Luis Obispo in case of a nuclear accident at the plant, one would have to travel on a freeway whose overpasses would likely crumble from an earthquake. The NRC did intellectual gymnastics to nonetheless approve the license, asserting it was “non- credible” that an earthquake would occur at the same time as a reactor accident. Of course, no one was claiming there would be two independent events: the concern was that an earthquake would damage the reactor and destroy the freeways as well.

After the Three Mile Island accident, Bridge the Gap began a project to examine nuclear activities in Southern California. Shel played critical roles in our exposure of the reactor accidents at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory and made major contributions to the work that led to the closure of the site. He served for years on the panel overseeing the epidemiological studies of the SSFL workers and then the studies about the offsite impacts. He also served for decades on the SSFL Work Group, holding agencies’ feet to the fire over broken promises for cleanup. He liked to recount how, when he was touring the facility, he asked an Atomics International staffer how radioactive contamination got outside the Hot Lab. He was told it was because the roof leaked—rainwater leaked into the building housing highly irradiated nuclear fuel, picked up contamination, and then leaked out again! There would always be a roar of laughter from Shel as he told this, because, as an engineer, these were the kind of “failure modes” that weren’t supposed to happen, and always did for nuclear power.

Shel was central to the successful intervention over the UCLA nuclear reactor, which, because of an instrument calibration error, was leaking radioactive argon-41 gas at levels hundreds of times the legal limit. Furthermore, the reactor stored five nuclear bombs’ worth of highly enriched uranium in a filing cabinet, with security to prevent theft of the weapons-grade material or sabotage of the reactor no better than the security at the campus bowling alley. Shel loved to tell the story of how he, as part of an inspection in preparation for testifying before the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, easily defeated the rudimentary motion detectors in the reactor room. The reactor operators were plagued by false alarms—every time the ventilation fans went on, the alarms went off—so they turned down their sensitivity. Knowing how such devices worked—detecting only a motion greater than a certain distance in a specified time— Shel got down on his hands and knees and crawled through the reactor room slowly, never setting off the alarms. The reactor was permanently shut down, and the NRC adopted new regulations to require such reactors to cease using highly enriched uranium that, if stolen, could be used to make a nuclear bomb.

In the 1970s, Bridge the Gap prodded professionals in medicine and the sciences to use their technical skills to address the nuclear threat. In part as a result, Richard and Pauline Saxon established Physicians for Social Responsibility-LA, and Shel helped start the Southern California Federation of Scientists (SCFS). Shel was the essential center of SCFS for decades, helping it engage in the fundamental mission of “science for the people.” He was one of the main forces behind SCFS’s long-running KPFK radio show on science and the public interest.

Shel invented a smog-free car engine that he tried hard to get the auto industry to adopt. The technology prevented the formation of nitrogen oxides (NOx) by extracting oxygen from the air and burning the fuel in pure oxygen. Had the auto industry or its regulators been more concerned about the health effects of pollution, his invention could have saved countless lives.

In the early days of Bridge the Gap, when I lived on a few thousand dollars a year and got around by bicycle, Shel and Millie would find an excuse once or twice a week to invite me to their home to supposedly discuss some Bridge the Gap matter, but in reality to feed me a dinner. Years later, when Millie descended slowly into Alzheimers, Shel took care of her with infinite patience, at home to the end.

He could be stubborn as a mule about some things, but at his core he was a gentle, gentle soul, who tried quietly, bit by bit, to make this war-torn and environmentally damaged world a better place. We have lost one of the righteous ones, but somewhere in the distance another one is being born.

Dan Hirsch