Loren Jacobson Interview

Lab-to-Lab: US-Russian Lab-to-Lab Collaboration Story [Archived]

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Loren (Jake) Jacobson in conversation with Sig Hecker and Alla Kassianova

January 18, 2018, Los Alamos*
JJ: (Loren) Jake Jacobson; SH: Sig Hecker; AK: Alla Kassianova

SH: Jake, thanks so much for being willing to share your experience working with Kazakhstan. But let me start by asking you, how did you get to Los Alamos in the first place and when?

JJ: Well, I spent twenty years on Air Force active duty, retiring in 1982. I went to the Livermore Lab, where I worked for a while in intelligence and then in the metallurgy group there.

SH: Was that in Z-Division?

JJ: Yes, Z-Division originally, and then Chemistry and Materials Science Division. Then, in ’86 – actually, December of ’85 – I visited Los Alamos. I believe you, Sig, were Director for the Center of Materials Science. I was going to visit my friend Pat Martin, and I peeked in the CMS door. And your secretary, Nancy, says to me: “Ah, you must be Jake the Spy.” And then, I think on that visit, you had me over for dinner and asked me, “What would it take to lure you away from Livermore?” I had put my hat in the ring for a different job there, and I wanted to see how that went. After the interview had gone very badly, I called you back and said, “I can now be lured.” Los Alamos was under a hiring freeze at the time, so any new hire had to be interviewed by the Director. I went for my Director interview, and he said, “Well, we like your technical ability, Jake, but what we really like are your contacts.” I spent a lot of time building up a capability. We had a lot of money from the National Aerospace Program to look at beryllium and beryllium alloys and processing and so on. And in connection with that, Pratt & Whitney sent us an atomizer, and there’s a big story about what happened with that. So I joined Los Alamos in 1986 and basically spent the next sixteen years as a technical staff member.

AK: And you, Sig, wanted Jake specifically because of his beryllium expertise?

SH: The beryllium expertise was really special. But his general metallurgical expertise was as important.

JJ: Well, and the contacts were kind of interesting because my last assignment in the Air Force was to DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where I was the program manager. And you get to know a lot of people when you have a job like that.

SH: Right. So the contacts at DARPA were important because that was a time when we were starting to look at what else the Laboratory could do in the non-nuclear arena. And so it was good to have those kind of contacts, both in government which DARPA gave you, but also in the private sector. Jake had both the technical background and then the contacts in government and the private sector that we in our metallurgy group felt would really serve Los Alamos well. That was the primary reason we were trying to recruit Jake here.

JJ: And the big attraction for me, metallurgically, was that my work at Livermore was in a glove box — that was our beryllium facility. In the meantime, Los Alamos had converted several laboratory rooms to beryllium capability by having a separate exhaust and filtration system and so on, so it really opened up a lot of interesting possibilities.

SH: So, from a facilities standpoint, you were moving to a better place.

JJ: Oh, indeed.

SH: Let me move on to the former Soviet Union. You were included in this group that went over to Kazakhstan. You actually wound up being able to make some really great personal connections.

JJ: Indeed.

SH: For example, you had previously mentioned Olga Tyupkina to me, and Shamil Tukhvatulin. And, as you know, Shamil was a Tatar from Tomsk. And in the Soviet days, he was assigned to Kazakhstan. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he stayed in Kazakhstan and became the director of the Kazakhstan National Nuclear Center.

JJ: That’s correct. He was the deputy director when I got to know him. And he had worked on this project Luch, which was the codename, I think, for the nuclear rocket program. And there was a fellow named Cherepnin, who I also met on a tour.

SH: So Yuri Cherepnin was the head, at the time, of the National Nuclear Center.

JJ: No, no. He was head of the project Luch. He was also a deputy. The director then was a guy named Batyrbekov.

SH: Ah, so that was Batyrbekov the elder.

JJ: Yes. There’s a younger one who is now the NNC director.

SH: So Batyrbekov was the director. Cherepnin and Shamil Tukhvatulin were the two deputies. Then, Cherepnin went on to become the director of the National Nuclear Center. I know that later on he went back to Moscow. I actually met him there once. When Cherepnin returned to Moscow, Tukhvatulin took over the NNC directorship.

JJ: Right.

SH: So, after your first visit, did you ever expect to go back?

JJ: Well, we wanted to go back to visit Ust Kamenogorsk. We didn’t get there the first time. We were trying to get there with a representative from Brush Wellman [the American beryllium company] as well, because they were interested. And we were told we couldn’t go in 1995. We could go in 1996.

SH: OK, so we’re already in ’95. In March ’94, as a member of a tri-lab team you went to Almaty; that’s the one you told us about. And then in October of ’96, you went back to Ust Kamenogorsk. And then, in July ’98, you went to Ust Kamenogorsk again and Almaty.

JJ: The main memory I have of the ‘96 trip was that I was in a very fancy hotel in Almaty. And I spent several days there in bed with the flu. My friends brought me cognac and tea, and that was what got me through. So, I had kind of a bleak visit that time to Almaty.

SH: But, you did go to Ust Kamenogorsk.

JJ: We did.

SH: And you had Brush Wellman people with you?

JJ: Not on that trip. For some reason, I don’t know why Don Kaczynski, my Brush Wellman colleague, didn’t come along on that one but he didn’t. He did come along on the ’98 trip and the 2002 trip.

SH: So what did you see in Ust Kamenogorsk in ’96? You had never been there at this large industrial metallurgical enterprise.

JJ: Well, in ’96, they didn’t show us very much. In ’98 and 2002 we got to see a lot of interesting stuff. In ’98 in particular, we were shown a fairly empty building with concrete pads that were poured to hold very large hot isostatic presses that were never actually delivered. We were shown fancy powder-making equipment from Germany—I think labeled, “Haereus” [a prominent German company]. I asked my host, “How did you buy this?” And he said, “We told them it was for making tool steel.” And it was yet in a room where the walls and ceiling and floor were all painted in hard epoxy, which is what you would do if you wanted to wash the walls down because beryllium powder could find its way into human beings [not what you would do for making tool steel powder].

SH: So tell us a bit more why they had beryllium activities in Kazakhstan and what did they actually have in Kazakhstan? This was all from Soviet days, right?

JJ: Yes, the beryllium ore was not in Kazakhstan. They made it very clear: the ore came from the Urals in Russia. And I think the beryllium manufacturing facility was located in Ust Kamenogorsk because of the large other so-called non-ferrous metal producing capabilities there. It was a very big industrial center. I believe Don Kaczynski visited on a different occasion from me, and he said pollution was so bad in the town you could hardly see across the street because of the smoke and other pollutants in the environment. So it was a pretty major facility. And why it was located there, I think because of the general skill level.

AK: Well, the Urals are not so far from Ust-Kamenogorsk. And then probably it also had to do with the test site so it’s kind of in-between?

JJ: Well, I don’t know. I mean, again, shall I jump ahead again? In 2002, they actually showed us the method by which they made beryllium hemispheres for the nuclear program. The method consisted of a large steel sphere with a hollow in it, which contained the beryllium powder. It was welded around almost all the way, not quite, so that the air could escape. This piece was heated up to over 1000 degrees centigrade, put into a press, forged once, reheated, and then forged to final shape. The steel was then dissolved off with nitric acid, leaving a hemispherical preform that was subsequently machined to final shape.

SH: I want to go back to the overall purpose of the plant in Ust Kamenogorsk. I prefer you to say it rather than me saying it.

JJ: I believe that the plant in Ust Kamenogorsk was the sole source of beryllium components in the former Soviet Union. They had all the processing there, and I think the final machined parts were made there during Soviet days. That was likely the motivation, if rumors are true, for Russia to develop their own beryllium processing capability after the breakup of the Soviet Union. I’m not sure if that ever happened.

SH: So the point is that Ust Kamenogorsk in Kazakhstan was crucial as far as beryllium is concerned. And certainly, in my discussions with the Russians, they also confirmed that their beryllium came from Kazakhstan, it was manufactured in Kazakhstan. And obviously you had a beryllium interest, and then there was this U.S. commercial interest in what now would be the Kazakh capabilities for beryllium manufacturing.

JJ: Right. One of the things that happened in the U.S. was that the Department of Energy more or less arbitrarily decided that the maximum eight-hour exposure, instead of being two micrograms per cubic meter, was instead being reduced to two-tenths of a microgram per cubic meter.

AK: Ten times?

JJ: Ten times the reduction of allowed worker exposure. Brush Wellman at that point said that we cannot make beryllium under those conditions, so they stopped manufacturing beryllium metal. Subsequently, they got roughly $50 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to build a new facility, and I was a consultant for a while on the project in which they were building the new facility. As far as I know now—I haven’t had any connection with the project for about five or six years—they had lots of trouble getting their new facility up and running. I think they’re back in operation now. But in the meantime, they were actually acquiring beryllium from Kazakhstan. It wasn’t quite up to their purity standards, but, nevertheless, it was happening.

AK: Were there any other joint projects, or that was about it?

JJ: Well, then, as I mentioned, there was this cooperative research and development agreement on copper-beryllium. Brush Wellman sent them a furnace…

AK: And what was this agreement about?

JJ: To establish a more efficient way of making copper beryllium in Kazakhstan.

AK: So, again, something that will be produced there and then in the United States.

JJ: It could be used there or in the United States. I mean, copper beryllium is probably a world-created commodity. I’m not sure, I haven’t followed it.

SH: And so they actually had a contract with an outfit in Ust Kamenogorsk?

JJ: Yeah. They put the furnace there, and they had an agreement to buy some of their products.

SH: And this one took place in what time frame?

JJ: Probably 2000, 2002. In that general timeframe.

SH: So that takes us up to 2002. You said you went back in 2002, what was the motivation for that trip?

JJ: That was, again, in connection with the monitoring of Project Sapphire participants [Project Sapphire was an operation that allowed the US government to remove nearly 600 kg of highly enriched, weapon-usable uranium from Ust Kamenogorsk and transport it to the US in 1994]. And also to visit the nuclear test site. That was an interesting trip from the test site standpoint. I was shown the impulse graphite reactor and then the prototype rocket reactor. They also took me to ground zero for their atmospheric nuclear testing area. And there’s a little metal flag that says “epicenter.” And it was fairly bleak looking because they had just done an intentional burn of all the grass and everything. It looked awful.

SH: Oh yeah, they burn the grass to avoid wildfires, so they essentially did a prescribed burn. And yeah, it does look awful.

JJ: Yes, and Shamil was director at that time. So at the opening banquet, he shakes my hand and says, “You are one of us.” That was one of the things he told me. And then he had to go off somewhere else. He came back a few days later and treated us to a banya dinner. So at that time, it was very interesting to see the example of the twisted fuel element for the nuclear rocket.

AK: In what realm are those technologies? Is it in the science realm at all? Is it something that is an object of research, or is it purely engineering and technological?

JJ: Well, at this point, I think it was still research because the nuclear rocket was not really fully developed anywhere at this point.

SH: It never took off.

JJ: In fact, one of the meetings in the 2002 trip, one of the other deputy directors–his name escapes me – pointedly asked me, “Why are you here? We’ve had visitors from Argonne, Sandia, NASA, other places, and we’ve got nothing out of this. So, are you bringing something for us?” No. Actually I did prepare a briefing to give at a NASA meeting on nuclear space propulsion, which, when I got there, the focus was electrical propulsion, not rocket propulsion, but I gave my talk anyway, pointing out that here’s this test site, all ready to go. Sure, the reactor is water-cooled now, but the plumbing is all there—you’ve got pictures on the thumb drive that’ll show you that with all the plumbing in this reactor, it would be a matter of just switching over to make it hydrogen cooled.

SH: I thought it was hydrogen cooled.

JJ: Initially it was. For the rocket, it was. And that’s why the fuel was carbide fuel, not oxide. But now it’s a metal alloy and water cooling.

SH: We saw–John Phillips and Jim Toevs and I—saw that reactor when we went out there in ’98. And, indeed, the plumbing was something else.

JJ: It’s all there. Some of it’s in use, and some of it isn’t.

AK: What kind of institute was doing the space rocket propulsion back in the ‘80s? And were these two areas of work related somehow with what was done before with the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow?

JJ: Well, it’s the same project. It took until about 1984 for the U.S. to finally figure out what it was because it went under various names. One was called PNUTS—Possible Nuclear Underground Test Site or something like that. There were big spheres apparently buried underneath under the ground, and one of the thoughts was that they were going to do small detonations within the sphere of containment so that it wouldn’t be discovered. That was wrong, these chambers were really just hydrogen reservoirs .

SH: There was a long tunnel from that reactor away from there.

JJ: That went to the control room. And the other interesting thing was—here’s this huge crane on two sets of tracks, and this crane could actually lift the building and move it aside. They would do a test and then move the building back so that our space observation capability could not see what was going on. But one time, the overhead imagery caught it off, so that allowed somebody to see the profile of a rocket. “Oh, it’s a rocket.”

SH: But indeed, by this time, they were showing it off. Now, it belonged to Kazakhstan, and they were trying to keep it alive.

AK: And what were they hoping for?

JJ: I think they were hoping that NASA would be interested because of their interest in nuclear space propulsion. I mean, if you had a nuclear rocket capability, the trip to Mars would be much more feasible.

AK: So they were looking for some sort of joint research and development?

JJ: Yes. I think so. Tremendous capabilities. I think this was one of the saddest aspects…

AK: And NASA wasn’t ever interested in anything…

JJ: Not that I know of. I even went to NASA headquarters one time to see if anybody would be interested, but they weren’t. One of the problems turns out to be a report prepared by the Argonne lab. One of their reactor people apparently went over and gave a very bad report of this facility—for some reason, I have no idea why. Competitiveness? And I think that was what stuck. People didn’t take it seriously.

AK: Otherwise, it could have led…

JJ: I’m sure it could have. Again, the capabilities were all there. The people were still there, waiting, waiting, waiting, getting more and more frustrated.

SH: Jake, when I was shown the reactor at that time, the former chief engineer – Alexander N. Kolbaenkov – we were sitting there at a lunch table. When I asked “How are things now?” He looked at me and said, “We have only memories of the good times.” But when I was there the last time in September 2012, it turns out Alexander had taken over the place where they brought the spent fuel from Aktau reactor.

JJ: Again, a pit at the Baikal facility.

SH: At the Baikal Site 300. And Alexander at that time actually had a tie on and a big smile. I said, “Alexander, how are things now?” He said, “Things are going very well.” They were looking for joint work, they were looking to keep the scientific activities, the technical activities, and to make money. What they had at Site 300 were the canisters of spent fuel from the Soviet-era Aktau reactor on the Caspian that the US helped repackage and move to this site.

So let’s now switch to the things that we were interested in. As part of the Project Sapphire follow-up, they were given the opportunity to have money through the ISTC program [the International Science and Technology Center program which the US State Department ran to support the transition of former Soviet scientists engaged in nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs to civilian activities]. And you met up with them because at that time they were interested in doing things that would fund them through ISTC. So, for example, the visit of Kairat Kadyrzhanov and Adil Tuleushev, that was related to the fact that they wanted to do things with Los Alamos.

JJ: In ’98, my companion on that trip was David Geebink, and he went to work for an agency in Arlington that I forget the name of.

SH: It’s called the CRDF [initially called the Cooperative R&D Foundation], now CRDF Global.

JJ: Now, CRDF also funded some work at the Kharkov Institute.

SH: They funded your Ukraine trip. But when Kadyrzhanov and Tuleushev came, they were interested in joint materials research.

JJ: Right. And Tuleushev made quite a nice research presentation in 2002 to Don Kaczynski. Don was interested in the sputtered foils that Tuleushev was making. And I’m not sure what happened because there’s a great interest in beryllium foil. Beryllium foil is probably the best thing you could put into an acoustical speaker because it is so stiff and so light that its response to various audio frequencies is better than anything else. And yet beryllium foil, at one time there was a price of maybe $100 for a square inch of foil. The foil is largely used for X-ray tube windows.

AK: So they had the capability to produce beryllium foil?

JJ: Yes, on a research level, but as far as I know it never went anywhere. In fact, I asked Marina, one of my colleagues over in Kazakhstan, in an email about what was happening with Kadyrzhanov, and she said he’s retired.

SH: Yes, I stayed in touch with Kadyrzhanov. He’s written a book, and we have it.

JJ: This Institute of Nuclear Physics was funded very generously by oil interests because they were interested in what was going on with the oil fields in northwest Kazakhstan and, probably, the only really sensitive question I got in all of my travels came from Kadyrzhanov. He said to me, “Can you tell us what the fission products would be contaminating underground because the Russians had exploded some nuclear detonations in order to see if they can improve the yield of these oil fields.” So they were concerned as to what they were. My response was, “Well, you should really ask the Russians because I have no idea what they have down there. And, besides, if I knew, I couldn’t tell you anyway.”

SH: It turns out, the reason they got money from the oil industry was because I suggested it to them. When I was there, when I was with Kadyrzhanov and Lukashenko—did you ever meet Sergey Lukashenko? No, probably not. When I was there discussing it with them, and I was very interested in the explosions in the salt domes, and, of course, our intel folks had interest in those as well. But I had interest from a proliferation standpoint—could stuff have been left behind in those salt domes? And so I talked both to them and to the Russians. And, in the end, I suggested to Lukashenko, that’s also the place with a lot of oil. I said, “Why don’t you perform this service for the oil industry — that you’re going to make sure the places that they drill don’t have radiological contamination.” So when I came a couple years later, Lukashenko had this whole new chemistry lab all funded by the oil industry.

So the visit in ’98, when they came to Los Alamos, my recollection quite definitively is I met them in January of ’98 and not March of ’98, when Kadyrzhanov and Teleushev were here. And do you remember bringing them into my office? I had just left the director’s office to go back to MST division. You brought Kadyrzhanov into my office, and that’s where we had the discussion. First of all, we had the discussion about metallurgy because that’s what they were interested in—thin films and so forth. And then I turned the discussion to ask “Aren’t you concerned about the test site?” They said yes, they were concerned about health and environmental effects. And I said, “Yes, I understand that. But aren’t you also concerned about potential proliferation problems?” And that’s when Kadyrzhanov said, “The Russians don’t tell us anything.” So that was January. He replied, “So why don’t you come to Semipalatinsk – the former Soviet nuclear test site?” Kadyrzhanov arranged the visit, and I was in Kazakhstan in April’98. Tukhvatulin was the head of the NNC at that time. He may have been deputy director. I think Cherepnin was still the head right around the transition. So I went there in ’98 with John Phillips and Jim Toevs, and we visited Almaty, the Institute of Nuclear Physics. We went up and visited the test site also. But it was your connection with these guys in the materials arena, ISTC-related, that then led to the fact that we wound up going out to Semipalatinsk. And in the “Doomed to Cooperate” book that tells the story of the US-Russian lab-to-lab cooperation that I just finished editing, we have the story of the next fifteen years. That effort was enabled by the fact that you brought Kadyrzhanov and Teleushev into my office at Los Alamos in January 1998.

JJ: Well, the other big interest at Semipalatinsk, of course, was the Degelen Mountain Project, and that was something that Shamil was very proud of — that they were able to seal all these underground test chambers that they had prepared for doing underground testing.

SH: And that was funded by what is now called DTRA (Defense Threat Reduction Agency), right?

JJ: Right.

SH: It also turned out, by the time we went out to visit, we also found out that even though they were closing up the front of the test tunnels, the copper cable thieves, as they called them, were digging in behind the plug and still getting into the tunnels. And so eventually, this project, which was started because of your bringing Kadyrzhanov to my office, then also fixed that problem.

But one other project that I remember and that I’d like you to recollect is the—and I think this must been around the year 2000 – was your concern about the potential of berylliosis disease in Kazakhstan. You tried to start a project, right?

JJ: You led right into my next story. So, on the 2002 trip, we had a scientist at Los Alamos who believed that she had identified a genetic marker for beryllium sensitivity. And so, I took along about a hundred and fifty cheek swab sample kits, very little. My intention was to obtain as many samples as I could from beryllium workers as well as people known to have beryllium disease. The Institutional Review Board at Los Alamos had prepared a four-page consent form. Well, I was fortunate to have lunch before going on this trip with a fellow called Craig Barnes, who was a lawyer in Santa Fe who had a lot of legal experience in the area because he was part of some of these negotiations about the flow into the Aral Sea and the diversion into the river to use for irrigating cotton. Of course, the Aral Sea was drying up. Anyway, he told me, “Number one, people won’t even read a four-page consent form, and they certainly won’t sign it”.

So, when I got there, I sat down with the director of the hospital, and we agreed that he would brief everybody on the contents of the consent form, describing the project. And we would prepare a two-line statement: “I have been informed about this project. I agree to participate. Sign and date.” And there was a lot of positive excitement about this on the part of the staff of the hospital. There were some thirty individuals who were known to have beryllium disease. They were worried that, if they were part of a project looking into genetic aspects of beryllium disease, they might be found out not to have beryllium disease. And they were worried about losing their benefits and so on. And I was able to assure them: “No names will ever appear. I will be the keeper of the number and name connection, but everything else will be by numbers, not by names.” So, everything was going fine. And then, there was a woman at DOE headquarters who was very concerned about this effort, and she insisted that somebody from the Institute of Health in Kazakhstan should be able to approve it. And it turns out the doctor from the hospital was such a member, and he approved it. I came back with about 130 samples, not just from the plant but also from other people, like from the Kazakh State University and from other people who had worked with beryllium. On my return, I was called by the medical director at Los Alamos, several other managers in the meeting, and I was very sternly criticized for having modified the consent form and obviated the project and all the samples were directed to be destroyed.

AK: Oh my god.

JJ: As far as I know. So nothing ever happened. And it was an amazing array of ethnicity—we had Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Russians. That would have been a very interesting data set. Subsequently, there were people out at our NIOSH – National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health—who were also looking into the genetic aspects, and they felt that our scientists had been too shallow with their examination, that there was actually a more important marker that was further down in the genome some place. And it would have been an extraordinarily difficult set of tests to prove it.

After I got back, I did some research into U.S. Center for Disease Control on procedures for collecting samples. If the collection of the sample poses no risk whatsoever to the person, you don’t even need a consent form.

SH: Is that right?

JJ: That’s what their rules say.

SH: As long as you have to have some protection so you’re not associating it with that person and the name?

JJ: I would imagine so.

SH: What motivated you to do this?

JJ: Well, Babs Marone [Los Alamos bio-scientist] had come up with this idea of a genetic marker. It was on chromosome 6, which is connected with immune system function, which is how beryllium disease works. A person’s immune system responds to beryllium by trying to isolate it, and the only mechanism for getting beryllium disease is to inhale dust into your lungs. And then your immune system, if you’re sensitive to it, will try to isolate it, and eventually, your lungs fill up with granulomas, and you suffocate. It’s very sad. It’s like silicosis or some of these other lung diseases. And it just felt like a wonderful population, especially, I knew the hospital, I met the hospital director. I knew that there were a number of people they were treating for beryllium disease.

SH: So you were trying to help them?

JJ: And us.

SH: Of course.

JJ: And again, the amount of excitement on the part of the medical staff, the nurses who were going to do the collection and so on, was just palpable. So you can imagine how difficult it was to write a letter back to the hospital director apologizing that our bureaucracy somehow failed us and we couldn’t do the tests. It was a very, very difficult time.

SH: Was that your last interaction with the Kazakhs?

JJ: With the Kazakhs, yes.

SH: So tell us a little bit about Ukraine. What brought you there?

JJ: With Ukraine, it was that the people at the Kharkov Institute had written a CRDF proposal and gotten funded. And I went over to visit.

AK: And you were invited as an expert?

JJ: Yes. And one of the issues was how to make the vacuum distillation of beryllium more efficient. One of the — should I go back to the beryllium plant for a moment?

SH: Sure.

JJ: I should mention that, on one of my visits—I think it was the ’98 visit—we were shown a big building with about 20 or more large vacuum distillation units. One-meter diameter vacuum furnaces with very large diffusion pumps and so on to produce the vacuum. The vacuum distillation process was undertaken, I was told, because the Soviet reactor designers had decided that the specification for beryllium reactors, for reflectors and other reactor components, was zero boron [for physics reasons]. And the normal content is maybe 50 to 100 parts per million of boron. And so they had this big facility for doing lots of beryllium vacuum distilled. There were no traps between the diffusion pump and the vacuum chamber, and I said, “Well, what do you do about the oil streaming back?” And they said, “Well, we don’t care.” And I said, “Well, that gives you a big impurity of carbon.” It was the boron that was a problem. Oh, OK. And, in fact, Don Kaczynski wanted to get them to fire up one, but they wouldn’t do it. But the process had been developed at the Kharkov Institute in Ukraine. One of the principal scientists was a fellow named Papirov. Papirov was sort of the lead scientist, and it was so funny, in this project to improve efficiency of beryllium vacuum distillation, their proposal was to add other metals that would trap some of the impurities and make it easier to do the distillation process. Since I had read a lot of the Russian literature, I knew that a scientist in Ukraine by the name of Samsonov had written a lot of papers on the thermodynamics of various things. One of the things he pointed out was that the niobium or molybdenum beryllide compounds were less stable than, say, the aluminum or other compounds. In the US, we had explored these as possible additives to beryllium welds, to tie up aluminum and other impurities. So during the visit I suggested to Papirov, “Well, how about adding niobium or molybdenum?” He said “We’ll just have to see.” Well, guess what — those were a couple of the important elements that they added, and they were able to get a reduction of about half of the vacuum distillation steps to get to about five-nines purity.

SH: So, one does vacuum distillation to get an ultrahigh purity. And five-nines is ultrahigh purity.

JJ: A pretty good one. So anyway, that was the main involvement with the institute there. In my first visit, I arrived in Kiev and spent the night in Kiev. Then we were driven across to Kharkov. And they stopped in a town called Poltava. Poltava, which was…

SH: Charles XII.

JJ: Well, it was actually Peter the Great. And the victory over the Swedes. So here’s this huge monument to the Russian victory. And about a kilometer or so north of that there’s a little cross with the memorial to the Swedes.

SH: Yes, it was the Swedish King Charles XII who lost the battle.

AK: And people were aware, of course, of your Swedish descent?

JJ: You know, it was really funny, I tried to get them to use “Jacobson” in my name, and they insisted: “Dzhajobcon.” But fortunately, my other name, my middle name is Arthur. So I was Loren Arturovich.

SH: What year was this, the Ukraine trip?

JJ: The Ukraine trip, the first one was probably ’96, ’97.

SH: That early?

JJ: Yeah, and I did make one more trip in 2003, shortly after I retired from Los Alamos.

SH: Also CRDF.

AK: Do you know if this project took off?

JJ: Well, the research was done. They certainly had publications. I actually met Papirov’s daughter, who lives with her husband in a suburb of Denver. There’s quite a group of Russian and Ukrainian people who live there.

AK: Jake, looking at both Kazakhstan and Ukraine, for you as a scientist, what did you learn? Did it contribute to your scientific worldview, to your scientific understanding of things in your field?

JJ: Yeah, in a way. In other words, it was very interesting to see that the processes for making beryllium metal were essentially identical there. And also, I had a rare occasion to visit a small pilot plant in India that used the same process, which is very complicated. And there was some thought that we could use another process, but, when Brush Wellman got the money to do this new plant, they didn’t have enough money to explore another process, so they basically re-implemented the same process that they used before, which was starting with beryllium hydroxide and then making beryllium fluoride and then reacting the beryllium fluoride with magnesium to make magnesium fluoride and beryllium metal. Magnesium fluoride is not water soluble, so all you can do is throw it away. A very inefficient process. And maybe, the cost per pound for beryllium, at least when I was aware of it, was at least three hundred dollars. We kept trying in this country to get people to use beryllium aluminum as blades for these big wind turbines, but we were told, “If it costs more than fifty cents a pound, we’re not interested.”

SH: I was interested in bicycle frames.

JJ: Well, yes, we had a visit, in fact, from people in California who were interested in using beryllium aluminum for bicycle frames.

AK: So it still has real applications.

JJ: Potential applications and, unfortunately, one of our dear friends, Jim Williams, when he was head of materials for General Electric Engine Company at Evendale, Ohio, scratched beryllium off his periodic table. They wouldn’t consider using beryllium for anything. And there was a big Navy program to build a fighter with a lift engine in which some of the main components of the lift engine were made from beryllium aluminum, and they decided, no, that was too risky.

AK: Because of the cost or because of the health issue?

JJ: The health issue. And I made a visit to DARPA a long time ago with friends from the Air Force, Pat Martin included, trying to get their medical people interested in really finding out what the problem is with beryllium. You see, the nearest chemical relatives are magnesium and calcium, both of which are in central body ingredients. Why should beryllium be different? Well, here again, Samsonov comes to mind because, at one time, he proposed that the electron configuration in beryllium in conventional textbooks is 1S22S2. But he felt that could easily be 1S22S12P1. And when you look at the structure of beryllium compounds, consisting of directional bonds, and the only way to get directional bonds is to have a P electron configuration.

AK: And that changes how it affects the body?

JJ: It may. It may be one of the clues as to why beryllium behaves differently in the body.

SH: So the main concern, then, about beryllium has been always the health issue and, of course, along with that, that also drives the cost up. So you have health concerns, cost concerns. But nevertheless, in the defense business, beryllium was still important, and so there were interests in the Soviet Union and in the U.S. And then you had commercial folks also interested.

JJ: It was, I think one of my greatest professional disappointments was to pull back from Kazakhstan with all those samples and throw them away. It’s a killer. But again, I would say that the friendships that we built were really good. The fact that Irina would write back to me immediately. Oh wow, I haven’t spoken with her for fifteen years. Some of the people… I should go through some of the photos…

[Looking at the photos]

JJ: These are all from the 2002 trip. A dinner, we met with the people in Almaty Institute of Nuclear Physics. This fellow at the end, Pyotr Chakrov, was a deputy director.

SH: I’ve met him several times.

JJ: Yeah, his English is really good. His big interest was to use the reactor and the hot cells in Almaty to do medical isotope production. I don’t know whether that ever went anywhere. He brought a proposal back. This fellow, Beckmahamad Ukalayov, was at Los Alamos several times. And we had dinner with his daughter who was studying English, and it was very pleasant. Ok, here’s an important picture. This is Sergey Vagin. May he rest in peace, by the way. He passed away from a heart attack, unfortunately, about five or six years ago.

AK: Hugh Casey tells the story of when you came to his house and melted the heart of his father.

SH: So tell us that story.

AK: When it was, ’95, when he came here—was it already after or before?

JJ: Oh, the visit to Sergey Vagin’s house was after he had already visited the lab. This was ’96. And, well, there had been a conference in Almaty on industrial collaboration and so on. Because Vagin was very interested in getting a project going, and he actually headed a company called KK Interconnect, which was manufacturing circuit boards. And the manufacturing facility was located in Kurchatov City. And the other fellow in the picture that Hugh gave you – Paul Stepanov – was collaborating with Vagin.

Actually that was in the evening before the day that Hugh and I were to leave, and we were to leave at some ungodly hour in the morning. So we went to dinner at Sergey’s house, and his daughter was playing the piano. And I had studied Russian as an undergraduate—I took two semesters of Russian because they wouldn’t let me take physical chemistry — and so I learned some songs in Russian. And there’s nothing that breaks the ice faster at a party than to start singing songs in someone else’s native tongue.

AK: What song did you sing?

JJ: Well, I sang some Mussorgsky songs—do you know the Song of the Flea? [singing in Russian] And then, there was another one called, “Is a young man suited for weaving?” [singing in Russian]

AK: This is Ukrainian!

AK: So, Jake, this is a question that Sig traditionally asks of people. Looking back, what do you think this particular part of your life, what kind of meaning do you extract out of it, from all sorts of perspectives — your personal perspective, your technical perspective, science perspective…

JJ: Well, from a personal perspective, one of the outstanding aspects from my interactions with people was their hospitality. I was accepted as a colleague.

AK: One of us.

JJ: One of us. And it did not hurt whatsoever that I was able to sing songs in Russian for them.

AK: Did you sing on more than one occasion?

JJ: Oh yes. In fact, I visited China once with Cliff Mesirov. We visited the beryllium plant in China. At the opening banquet, we were introducing ourselves: “Hi, I’m Jacobson from Los Alamos.” Someone in the back pipes up, “Ah, Jacobson. We heard you sang songs in Russian for our friends at Ust Kamenogorsk. Would you sing for us?” And so, without knowing any better, I sang a song in English, “To Dream the Impossible Dream”. I could have sung a song in Russian because most of these people had been trained in Russia. So their second language was Russian, not English.

AK: Who was speaking? A Russian person or a Chinese person?

JJ: A Chinese person. The beryllium community is a small community.

AK: Your reputation precedes you around the world.

JJ: And I think the chance to exchange ideas and so on, especially with the scientists at Kharkov — I mean, that was more aligned with my interests than the plant because I had not been involved in my career with actually producing beryllium metal. But then the health issues were of great concern, and protections at the beryllium plant in Ust Kamenogorsk were not as good as they could have been. They had masks that they would just fit with a piece of metal around your nose, and the filtration—I’m not sure how good the filtration was and so on. It was not the best environment.

AK: Professionally, did you learn? Did it give you any new directions or perspectives?

JJ: I think the exchanges with the people at Kharkov were great fun because they were interested in what I had to suggest. But the beryllium aluminum alloy was what was very interesting to me in a professional sense with the National Aerospace Program which had funded our research at Los Alamos to look into beryllium.

AK: You mentioned at least two disappointments—one of those was the medical project, and another just general disappointment that those things just didn’t go…

Teleushev and Jacobson, ISTC K-40 Project

JJ: That we couldn’t get interest, especially on the part of NASA. Interest in the nuclear rocket project. Because that was something that had lots of potential. And, again, I think the vastly different approach that they made to the reactor fuel design — different than we had made in this country — was quite remarkable.

* Dr. Jacobson passed away on Dec. 26, 2018. We are privileged to post this interview in his memory for all the contributions he made to working with the states of the former Soviet Union.

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