We are sad to report that our friend Milton Levenson passed away on March 31, 2018, at the age of 95. Levenson was a chemical engineer who worked in the nuclear energy field for over 60 years.
He grew up in Minnesota, and initially did not plan to attend college because of the Great Depression. At the encouragement of his high school teachers, he attended the University of Minnesota. In an oral history interview with the Atomic Heritage Foundation, he recalled, “I really had no intention of going to the university because there just wasn’t any money. There was barely enough to get food. A couple of high school teachers insisted that I had to go. I had no idea what I wanted to be.” In 1943, he graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering.
Upon graduation, Levenson was recruited for the Manhattan Project. He briefly worked at the Houdaille-Hershey Plant in Decatur, Illinois, before being drafted as a Combat Engineer in the U.S. Army. After he completed his training, he was reassigned to the Manhattan Project, instead of being sent overseas, because of his training in Chemical Engineering. He went to Oak Ridge and supervised the construction of a small chemical plant at the X-10 Laboratory. He appreciated the opportunities he had at such a young age. He recalled: “My boss called me in and said ‘They’re going to promote you from private to private first class.’ I was sort of cynical, but it was an incredible experience.” After being discharged from the Army, he continued to work at Oak Ridge for two years as a civilian engineer.
From 1948 to 1973, he worked as a development engineer at Argonne National Laboratory. He recalled: “I once had to tell [Enrico] Fermi there was an experiment we couldn’t let him do. There’s an experiment that today is called ‘time of flight.’ He wanted to do this with a small reactor in a park area adjacent to Argonne. We said, ‘You can’t do that. That’s where people eat their lunches.’ I was probably one of the few people that ever had to tell Fermi there was something he couldn’t do.” During his time at Argonne, he met his wife Mary Novick. They had five children.
Levenson spent the latter part of his career working as a nuclear safety consultant for the Electric Power Research Institute and the Bechtel Power Corporation. He worked as a consultant on the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. He explained: “There were five of us who met twice a day. Every morning, we’d go over what information we had, and what we could do now, and how to secure the plant. It took close to 30 days to get the plant stable.” Shortly afterwards, he attended a European Nuclear Society meeting to comment on the accident. “I got a call. There was a European Nuclear Society meeting coming up in Hamburg. So I went there and spoke for a couple of hours.”
From 1983 to 1984, he served as the President of the American Nuclear Society. This position allowed him to continue his interest in promoting and ensuring nuclear safety.
For more on Milton Levenson, please see our 2017 interview.