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Real World Science is Interdisciplinary

May 26, 2010

What's my specialty? That would be difficult to pin down, since I've worked across many fields in my career. Officially, I'm a materials scientist, but even that discipline is a composite of several fields, including physics, chemistry and engineering. Reading the recent obituary of Edwin E. Kintner convinced me that success in today's technology involves knowledge of many scientific disciplines. Kintner, who died on May 7, 2010, at age ninety was a pioneer in nuclear reactor technology. He helped design the reactor for the first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus, but he is best known for overseeing the cleanup of Three Mile Island.

Kinter graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in December, 1941, and served on a naval cruiser during World War II. After the war, he attended MIT and was awarded Master's degrees in several areas, including physics, although he called himself an engineer. Starting in 1949, Kintner joined Hyman Rickover's team building the Nautilus and other nuclear ships. He retired from the Navy in 1963 with the rank of Captain after twenty one years of service, fourteen of which were with Rickover.

Reminiscing on the Nautilus, which was launched on Jan. 17, 1955, Kintner said in a New York Times Magazine article [1],

“To produce Nautilus, it was necessary to expand man’s knowledge far beyond the ‘known’ in almost every technical area — physics, metallurgy, mechanical engineering, electronics, environmental medicine..”

After the Navy, Kintner worked for the US Atomic Energy Commission and the US Department of Energy, formed as an offshoot of the AEC. He left government service in 1982, complaining that the Reagan administration, despite repeated energy crises, was not devoting enough resources to nuclear energy. Reagan, of course, was just mirroring public sentiment about the Three Mile Island incident that began on March 28, 1979.

Kintner joined the General Public Utilities Nuclear Corporation, the owner of Three Mile Island, in 1983, as vice president in charge of the final phases of the Three Mile Island remediation. He was still upbeat on nuclear power, saying that the lessons learned at Three Mile Island would make for a safer nuclear power industry through better operator training and better plant operating procedures. Said Kintner in a 1988 interview [2],

"It was a good thing in that it provided a traumatic shock to all the institutions involved in nuclear energy applications -- a badly needed shock to make them aware of the special requirements for the safe use of this enormous new source of energy... It was a very useful event, one which could change the history of nuclear power and one which, I believe, in the end, changed it in a positive direction."

Kintner was elected to membership in the US National Academy of Engineering in 1990 for "significant contributions to the development of nuclear submarine propulsion, nuclear power operation and management of magnetic fusion programs."


  1. Niko Koppel, “Edwin E. Kintner, Nuclear Power Pioneer, Dies at 90” (New York Times Online, May 19, 2010).
  2. T. Rees Shapiro, “Edwin E. Kintner, 90, dies; led Three Mile Island cleanup” (Washington Post Online, May 25, 2010).

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