Well It Is Forty (40) Years this Month, August 2017 that I have been in or associated with the Electricity Supply Industry
So it started in 1977. A 16 year old, as green and unconfident as they come, arriving for my induction course, a Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) Student Apprentice known as a Technical Staff Trainee (TST) in the Midlands Region based at Drakelow, my working life had begun.
Frightened, well that is an understatement, I was petrified. Me and 13 others ‘kids’, who were Craft Apprentices (Industrial Staff Trainees, IST’s), attending the induction course on the ‘C’ Station site. A five (5) day duration that had me shaking in my boots. No idea what was ahead of me, never been in a situation in such horrified isolation with no one to turn to from 08:00 to 17:00 each and every day of the five (5) days that were ahead of me.
Introductions were made and the course commenced. What you will be doing, why you will be doing it and where you will be doing it were presented. What was expected of you was described and the means and methods of meeting those expectations advised as were the consequences of not meeting them. Oh dear, what have I let myself in for, how am I going to survive living away from home during college, what is college going to be like, how will I met these expectations were just a few of the questions buzzing in my brain. So much information, so many unknown quantities – why did I just not stay on at school for another two (2) years to do my ‘A’ levels seemed to be a reoccurring question – my four (4) year apprenticeship was on!
Well the question on why I decided not to stay on at school was quickly answered. Arriving at college and, within a few weeks of getting to develop friendships with the other TST’s from other power stations in the Midlands Region, it was heaven. The independence, the learning, the other guys’ crazy and fun stories, brilliant, what more could you ask for and I was getting paid too!
So the months passed and Christmas college break arrived. No break for us though, back to our base stations, and the first on-site plant experiences were to commence. Now it was to be the first time on the site at Drakelow, on the ‘A’ station with the mechanical maintenance department shadowing fitters, where I did not have the protection afforded by the training staff as it was during the induction course which seemed like a long time before. My two (2) weeks on site commenced, shockingly to me at 07:30 each and every morning. I had to get up no later than 06:30 to ensure that I ‘clocked-in’ before 07:30 otherwise I would be in trouble. A verbal warning would be received on first lateness occurrence, a written one on the second and termination with the third! I had never had to wake-up so early, it was hell, with the potential to arrive late and the subsequent consequences petrified me. It was dual alarm clocks and the Yamaha FS1E primed up with fuel every evening to ensure no stops were required en-route to the plant the following morning.
The ‘brilliance’ of attending college diminished rapidly. Those ‘fitters’ were smart – they knew exactly how to make your life hell. Their means and methods were brilliant and are fully known to all those having previously and subsequently trodden the apprentices path. I will not expand on any facets of this here but, looking back without them, an apprentice’s preparation to become a well-rounded, socially accepted person would certainly have not been realized – a wonderful experience reflecting on those ‘off-college’ times during those four (4) years. I acknowledge that, for some of those who have known and still know me through my career may consider that I am an exception to the rule but alas.
So my four (4) years of Student Apprenticeship passed successfully, sometimes I wonder how, but they did. It was now time to find a job. Due to potential ‘nepotism’ getting your first permanent job, a third engineer (3E), at your base location, in my case Drakelow, was frowned upon. So it was a daily review of the notice boards that ensued for those pink job adverts. Pink was the color of the paper engineering job opportunities were posted on throughout the CEGB. So the days went past and then the weeks and subsequently the months. Worrying times but temporary employment was given to TST’s at their base station until a permanent positon was obtained – a wonderful thing. My temporary role was as an Engineering Assistant in the Drakelow ‘A’ and ‘B’ electrical control room, on shift, synchronizing 60 and 120 MW generators, load sharing and other ‘exciting’ (pardon the pun) power station type things on shift.
So it was June 1982 and a 3E position in the electrical department was advertised. Located at Ironbridge ‘B’ power station in Shropshire being approximately 50 miles from where I lived so, if successful, a relocation would be required. I applied and an interview was offered. So here we go, 21, Yamaha XS850 (yes my love for motorbikes had commenced with the FS1E those few years before, and several owned prior to the 850, and a few dozen to this day 40 years later), and off I rode to the interview with plenty of time in hand in case of any issues. As usual, a bag of nerves but I had spent a couple of weeks researching the site and getting my electrical knowledge back up to scratch as well as other administrative and HR type things prepared in case of being asked the same. I was in the reception when the personnel manager collected me and took me to the conference room where the deputy station (DSM) manager, maintenance manager (MM) and electrical maintenance engineer (EME) awaited my arrival. Oh my goodness – I entered the room with people that to me at that time were Gods. They pleasantly asked me to sit down and they introduced themselves. Then it started. The EME mentioned that they were changing one of the 500 MW alternator’s stator during the next outage and that if I was successful with winning the job I would be involved with that exchange. “What do you know about alternators Mick?” was the first question. Wow, the complete and utter terrified feelings vanished! Can you believe it but during my childhood I worked with my father who had his own motor rewind business so I knew motors and alternators inside out, well small ones at least, with the technical aspects from college I was fired up and running on all four. So off I confidently went. The MM asked me a couple of questions with regard to power station operations and the DSM about a couple of junior management aspects that I responded to off of the wrist! The personnel manager then closed the interview by asking why I wanted the job, what did I think I could bring to the job and of my willingness to relocate. Of course, despite my trepidation to relocate I answer all questions with enthusiasm and excitement.
July 1982 appeared and I get a phone call from my training manager and summoned to his office - immediately! On no what have I done now. He was very strict, enforced the rules very rigidly and suffered no fools. I told my supervisor I was summoned and that I had to leave immediately. I literally ran all the way from the ‘A’ station to the ‘C’ station, around ¾ of a mile, and arrived at his office door, out of breath and more than a little worried. Following my knock, “Mick come in and put your arse down there”. Oh no this is bad I thought. He started, “What do you think you were doing?” with a grimace on his face. “Sorry?” I said, “Why did you wear your bloody earring at the interview?” Oh no, I’m dead now, forgot to take it out, what am I going to do? I started to respond and splutter but as the words commenced rolling out of my mouth his grimace turned into a broad smile and he said “Shut-up, you did a brilliant job, your interview went tremendously well and the MM actually drew your head with an earring as an aide memoir, they want you to start next week!” I almost couldn’t contain myself, I thanked him for all his support over the preceding four (4) years and he shook my hand with both of his saying that it had been a great, and sometimes troubling, pleasure.
The first week of August arrived and there I was at Ironbridge B Power Station, a 3E and as proud as punch! Waiting in the reception and my new boss arrived with the EME. Again introductions occurred and they then stated that the Station Manager (SM) wanted to see me. Wow, I am now really going to see God, and as if I wasn’t already nervous on my first day at work! So up the elevator we went to his office. The door was knocked and his secretary invited me in. I introduced myself and she said “Welcome Mick the Station Manager is expecting you” Gulp! So she escorts me into his office “This is Mr. Papp for you.” "Welcome Mick”, he stated, wow he knew my name, “thank you for joining us here on this great site – you will enjoy it” as he walked towards me to shake hands. I was terrified but responded, I think, in a reasonable manner. He shared some other kind words with me and that was it, off I went to my new office location to meet the rest of the team.
Three (3) joyful years were spent at Ironbridge B. Bought my first house, my first car, sixth motorbike and lots of other items that are not worthy of inclusion here but maybe in another, more restricted piece.
When 1985 arrived I was getting itchy feet, new challenges were needed and my enthusiasm to climb the ladder was kicking in so I started to look at the pink sheets again. I had garnered a lot of experience working with my dear friends at Ironbridge, precipitators, alternators, turbine controls, etc., etc. so I thought I was ready. One Monday morning, in May I recall, there was a second engineer (2E) position advertised. (The hierarchal chain for progression in those times was 3E, 2E, 1E, Senior and then Principle Engineer noting that the likes of us TST’s getting past and even to a 1E was almost implausible without a degree – the reason for this comment will become apparent later).
Now there was a little wee problem. At that time jobs in the Midlands Region of the CEGB were far and few between and any jobs that did come up were filled by seasoned individuals who were becoming superfluous due to the older power plants being shut-down. Frustrating for us youngsters but, nonetheless, a good thing. This 2E job was at Longannet power station near Dunfermline in Scotland in the Electrical and Instrument Development Department! What was I to do, 24 years old, my own house, blah blah blah. My zest to climb that career ladder won. I applied and within two (2) weeks an offer to go for an interview was received.
So in June of 1985 off I went on that 500 mile round trip ride to Scotland. Arriving the night before and as usual, finished off my interview preparations of the preceding two (2) weeks, I went to that massive site for my interview. As with Ironbridge, the HR manager collected me and took me into the conference room where, the DSM, MM, EME and the Electrical and Instrument Development Engineer (E&IDE) greeted me. The questions came thick and fast but my preparations had put me in good stead. The formalities came to an end and the EME mentioned my boss’s name at Ironbridge. I already knew that he and the E&IDE had previously worked together at West Burton many years before as Shift Maintenance Engineers. So off we went “How is so and so doing, not seen him for nearly 10 years…” and on it went for another 15 minutes or so when the HR Manager said we should wrap up. So we all shook hands and they said they would be in touch.
The return trip to Ironbridge went without issue. I kept mulling over in my mind, did the interview go well, what about the other five (5) candidates, all relatively local, am I too close to them, etc., etc. doubts arising all the time. So went into work the following day and my pals, and bosses, all asked how it went, etc.
Several weeks passed and my ‘big’ boss called me up to his office – sound familiar! So off I went thinking that I was unsuccessful and that he wanted to break it to me gently because they knew how much I wanted a promotion. Well in I went and he got up, shook my hand and said well done. “You got the job, the reason it took so long to complete the offer was because Longannet was part of the South of Scotland Electricity Board (SSEB) so certain ‘things’ had to be done to allow a move from the CEGB to the SSEB.
The date would be, again, in August to start but this time 250 miles away – this was a big move. Sell the house, plus other facets needed to be addressed. I had very mixed emotions but I sent my affirmative reply and the proceedings commenced.
The week of my start arrived in a flash. The weekend before I said goodbye to all my mates in Broseley, the village I lived in near to Ironbridge, got a ride to Wolverhampton and caught the train to Edinburgh, then one to Dunfermline, a bus to High Valleyfield then a four (4) mile walk to the site – what a mess, why did I do it this way, young and stupid I suppose. So after 16 hours on the road so to speak, I arrived on site at 09:00 Monday morning totally wiped out. My new boss greeted me, noted how exhausted I was and told me to go to the hotel to rest, “See you tomorrow”. Great and off I went.
Longannet was a great site, unfortunately and surprisingly, closed back in 2015. Spent three (3) years there developing and installing electrical upgrades to the plant including uninterruptable power supplies (UPS) and new control desk and boards for the first Unit – mammoth but enjoyable project. During these years I cut my ties with Broseley selling my house, eventually, after travelling back every weekend for over a year, lots of miles on the bike, a Yamaha XS1100 Martini, great bike that I unfortunately crashed towards the end of the period and some other trials and tribulations not worthy of mentioning here.
In the late 80’s Torness, a nuke, twin AGR plant was nearing completion on the east coast of Scotland near Dunbar about 40 miles south east of Edinburgh. I saw an opportunity so I applied, and was successful, for a sideways move as a 2E in the Electrical, Instrument and Control Department. Once again another start in August, so my nuclear career commenced in 1988, something I had desired and a side-ways move was the way to go. This proved to be a good decision. Not only because it gave me a great grounding into the ultra-safe nuclear culture but enabled my involvement to be responsible for the maintenance and outage management of some sophisticated electrical equipment and working with some great electricians – I learned a lot.
1988 proved to be a momentous year. We bought a nice house in Cocksburnspath around 12 miles south of the plant and our first child was born. It also became apparent that without a degree my next move to a 1E may be several years if at all so I applied for a SSEB scholarship to study for a degree part-time over three (3) years with the potential for a further two (2) years to gain honors. So, following lots of discussion, the decision was made and the application sent. A few days later an acknowledgment was received and a date provided to attend an interview at SSEB head office in Glasgow.
Arriving at head office I was interviewed by the SSEB Deputy Chairman, Director of Engineering and the HR Director – big interview. Lots of question asked and numerous references made to the fact that this would be hard, holding down a full time job, travelling to Glasgow once a week (over 200 mile round trip) for at least three (3) years, etc., etc. I advised due consideration had been given and that I would assure them of my commitment. Further, they stated that during this period, it would be highly unlikely that I would be successful if I applied for promotion either at a new location or internally at Torness. I advised that I understood. The interview concluded with the usual statement “We will be in touch”.
Approximately two (2) weeks later a letter was received with a Glasgow postmark. With great trepidation I opened it. I was amazed, I was accepted and my start date included. The attendance was identified as being at the college in Glasgow by 09:00 every Wednesday with a finish time of 20:00 because evening classes were included. It started to sink in. A two (2) hour drive in the morning and evening which meant leaving home no later than 07:00 and returning no earlier than 22:00 every Wednesday for at least three (3) years while working full time Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday having to make up my missing on site Wednesday by either working late and/or some Saturdays and helping Wendy, my now wife, raise our first child. What was I thinking, must be mad, and how is this going to play out?
So to keep this short, I successfully completed the three (3) years during which time our second (2nd) child was born and I had to make the journey for 18 months via public transport due to a major error in judgment one (1) day losing my license for that duration but I survived. Further I was given the opportunity to continue for a further two (2) years to gain my honors, surely I would turn this down! Discussions took place again and the decision was taken to continue – mad, mad, mad!!!
Well, looking back, yes it was mad but it was done and couldn’t have done it without the support of Wendy and her folk. But in May 1993 I received a first class honors degree in engineering with electrical power, and during that period, against what I was advised at the scholarship interview, I received a promotion to a 1E at Head Office in the Projects Division making the last year of travel much easier due to relocating to the environs of Glasgow, East Kilbride to be precise, the location of what was now Scottish Nuclear’s (SNL) new head office. All was good, in fact brilliant.
Once graduated I sought membership of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) and also for Chartered Engineer (CEng) status – a life-long adult dream of mine and in November, following the gaining of the necessary professional recommendations (thanks to all who supported me) and formal interviews I became M.D.Papp CEng BEng(Hons) MIEE.
Very soon after my graduation SNL commenced an initiative to build Dry Fuel Stores (DFS) at both the Torness and Hunterston sites in Scotland to lower the burden of fuel back end costs with BNFL in partnership with GEC-Alsthom (GEC-A). I was asked to be the electrical project manager for the DFS fueling machines which, on the down side meant, that I would have to fly weekly to Leicester in England to the GEC-A offices at Whetstone and be away from the family, but on the upside, I would be promoted to a SE! This was way beyond my wildest dreams becoming a SE at 32, how could I reject such an offer?
So the weekly trips started with an early flight Monday morning and a return flight back every Friday mid-afternoon either from Edinburgh or Glasgow. Hotel life quickly became boring but, with all the work that needed to be done an early daily start was the key with late evening finishes every Monday through Thursday – this helped a lot and was a slight distraction from being homesick though I never liked being away – ironic when you read later. The DFS project was supposed to take three (3) to four (4) years but I always felt that this would not be the case. After being involved with the project for a few months, early in 1994, following my studying of the political environment, I had a bet with a couple of my colleagues that the project would be halted before the end of the year. No way they said, too much had been invested already and there would be no turning back. In July of 1994 we were advised that SNL’s Chief Executive was flying down to provide an update. Well to keep it short he arrived and we were all summoned into a large conference room at a local hotel. I was correct and I won my bets – yee-haa, on the way back home.
So the plans were put together on how this ‘termination’ would manifest itself with the commercial arrangements with GEC-A being involved, how to deal with the millions of pounds worth of equipment already purchased and manufactured, the intellectual property rights, etc., etc. Well a team of three (3) individuals was assigned for a nine (9) month period to complete all the negotiations with GEC-A and appropriately dispose of all of the equipment. Well, you will have guessed it, I was one (1) of the three (3)!
So travelling still involved with numerous meetings with both GEC-A in Leicester and also with BNFL at various locations. I have to say that this period was one of my most rewarding times as it involved very high level legal and commercial negotiations with significant challenges. We met the nine (9) months successfully and now it was time for something new with 1995 being half way over.
SNL decided that in 1995 with British Energy (BE) being formed, which was the amalgamation of SNL, who ran the nukes in Scotland and Nuclear Electric (NE) who ran the nukes in England and Wales, a new department was to be formed to manage the transition. I was asked to be the lead for the development and implementation of the Project Management processes and procedures in support of the transition – not a small but a very welcome task under the Director of Business Improvement, who as a side bar, became the CEO of Bruce Power in Canada and still meets with great well-earned success.
So this occurred in addition to me being elected as the first technical secretary for the newly established Technical Supervisory Board (TSB). The TSB meet weekly at SNL’s head office consisting of the CEO, Director of Engineering, Director of HS&E, Director of Projects, Company Secretary and the Site Directors with the occasional involvement of Board members – I was now flying within high circles being the ‘minute man’.
This positon did not come cheaply. The TSB would start at 09:00 every Monday and inevitable go into the early afternoon as white papers would be presented summarizing plant status, proposed capital expenditures, and corporate strategies for approval amongst other very interesting and sometimes highly confidential issues. I tasked myself with getting the minutes out, and I mean minutes not notes, for approval no later than 09:00 the following day. This was achieved, without fail for the 12 months of my tenure but meant that I never would get home before 23:00 on a Monday night, making for a very long day and I still had to ensure my ‘day’ work was progressing satisfactorily - a very stressful but rewarding year.
So 1996 came and went and 1997 was underway. The TSB was behind me with a very nice letter from the CEO on-file and a new task in-hand to separate the licenses between the Hunterston ‘B’ site (AGR reactors), which was to be part of the privatized BE, and Hunterston ‘A’ (Older Magnox reactors), which was to remain nationalized and become part of the government run Magnox Ltd due to their impending decommissioning and associated liabilities. Because of the sites shared services in addition to license separation contracts had to be created and agreed for shared services or new plant and equipment installed to separate the sites – I was tasked as the ‘technical’ expert. This was becoming a never ending work pattern. Now I was required to meet with our and BNFL’s solicitors every other day to develop and negotiate the necessary agreements and provide the technical bases and economics for each and every situation/scenario. This took over five (5) months to resolve with numerous Friday nights (why is it always Friday?) spent in Glasgow going through details and preparing papers for first thing Monday morning to meet the commitments made with the regulator (the NII) – I was rapidly becoming a closet solicitor and a very exhausted one!
Looking back it was a great experience gaining exercise and I have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed working with those solicitors. Again, another letter from the CEO was on file for the completion of a successful mission.
A wonderful opportunity then presented itself. I was asked if I would write and present a paper for the IEEE Energy conference in New York, New York. This conference was to occur in the Hilton at Times Square. The theme was to be “Supply Side Energy Efficiency” and I was also asked to sit in on a Panel discussion. How could I say no? As the time approached, the Paper was written, gone through review and approval and submitted per the IEEE requirements. Went home that evening and Wendy’s parents not only offered to look after the kids but to pay for her flight to New York. Arrangements were made and off we went to New York, the first transatlantic flight we had ever made, and via Dublin, so a few ‘home’ Guinness’ were going to be sampled. Excitingly off we went and we eventually arrived at our hotel on Canal Street in Chinatown. What an experience we were there for a week with the Conference lasting three (3) days so we had a couple of days on our own were we visited Ellis Island and a couple of museums in addition to the usual like the Empire State. Every evening I would spend a couple of hours reading my Paper, getting more and more nervous until the day of the presentation occurred. Early start and off to the authors breakfast – weird but we are in the States I suppose. Breakfast went and the waiting started. On my goodness I was getting more and more anxious as the time went. My slot was directly after lunch and there would be upwards of 150 people attending. 13:00 arrived and I was up there, one and half hours later I returned to my seat and the pain and load lifted immediately, job done. All I could see in front of me was now Guinness and two (2) days of free time – I went to the bar in the lobby and met up with Wendy - no need to say anything more.
An interesting side bar was that many years later we try to visit Manhattan at least once a year for a long weekend. Our first annual trip was in 2008, ten years after the conference and when we arrived at the hotel we both said this is familiar. It then dawned on us that it was the same hotel near Times Square that the conference was held in ten years before – very spooky.
So it was back to my Project Management processes again and I decided that that was enough. Because of my work with the site separation and the fact that I knew most of the people on the Hunterston ‘A’ site, which was now being de-fueled in preparation for decommissioning and decontamination (D&D), another chapter in my career was about to begin which would eventually become life changing providing a wonderful opportunity to work overseas as will be expanded upon later.
I made some phone calls and the ball started rolling. Interviews took place and an offer arrived. Negotiations took place with the key facet to ensure that I would not experience a break in-service moving from BE to Magnox Ltd and, with this formally agreed in writing, I tendered my resignation to BE. To keep a long story sort this was not well received but I had made the decision.
So in February 1998 I stared my new role as the Project Management Group Head at Hunterston ‘A’ near Largs in Ayrshire on the west coast of Scotland. Because it was relatively near, 38 miles, to East Kilbride, albeit quite a dangerous route (I am aware of several BE/Magnox persons killed on that route) no relocation was necessary and my daily motorcycle ride on my newly acquired Kawasaki ZX9R was underway occasionally varied with ‘nice weather’ rides on my Ducati 900 SL.
So there I was, leading the projects in the D&D arena, a very different set of needs, although a lot of those involved at the time still and to this day, had the wrong mentality to successfully support D&D – a big challenge. One of my first priorities was to develop and implement a new project management system onto the site. This was to ensure that existing processes and protocols were developed to support acceptable progress without reducing safety, ensuring the meeting of the license requirements and to assist with the changing of the work forces’ culture.
My efforts met with success and in late 1999 I was asked if I was interested in supporting the D&D of Big Rock Point, a BWR plant in Northern Michigan, in the good old US of A. You’ve got to be kidding me, wow.
So, at home that evening, family discussions started. The kids were 12 and 10 at the time and this was going to be an accompanied 12 month assignment starting in early 2000 if I was interested. I travelled down to the Magnox Ltd’s head office in Gloucester, which was now part of BNFL, to discuss the opportunity in more detail. The role was to be the Engineering Manager for BNFL Inc. the lead contractor for the Major Component Removal (MCR) project which included the preparations for and the licensing of the shipping and disposal container for the reactor vessel. The MCR work had started in earnest in 1999 and the current incumbent was scheduled to return to the UK early February 2000 after his year’s assignment was complete. I asked about the family and it was agreed that prior to making a decision we, Wendy, the kids and me would be flown to the States for two (2) weeks so that we could get the lay of the land and that this would allow us to make a decision – no strings attached – how could we refuse. Plus we would be in the States for Thanksgiving.
So mid-November came, bags packed and off we went to Glasgow airport, it was early Sunday morning. A short flight to Heathrow with two (2) hours waiting we boarded the nine (9) hour flight to Chicago, a nice 747. This was a couple of hours longer than our New York trip nearly fifteen years earlier so we were very excited and somewhat in mixed anticipation of what was ahead of us. Thank goodness I did not know what was ahead of us during this two (2) week period – this will become clearer later! We arrived in Chicago and awaited our flight to Traverse City which is located 50 miles south of Charlevoix, the nearest town/city to Big Rock. On my oh my we were at the gate and the boarding commenced. It was a twin prop job, no bigger than a bus, we were tired, and sixteen hours already into the trip. It was 21:00 EST with an hour’s fight and an hour’s drive still to go in a land we had no idea about!
Off we went crazy, up and down, side to side, it was winter and we flew over Lake Michigan in the dark – it was surreal and the size of the Lake was just unbelievable, as land appeared the announcement was made to prepare for landing. This will be fun! We landed; no issues thankfully, as you would expect, we collected our luggage and ventured to the hire car pick up point. The eighteenth hour of our trip arrived and we are loading our luggage in to the car – 22:30 and another hour to go, subject to not getting lost, then a short sleep in preparation for being on-site at 06:00 Monday morning!
We managed to escape Traverse City and get onto US31, the correct road somehow, I still don’t know how to this day but we did and we arrived in the city of Charlevoix. The place was lit up everywhere with fairy lights on the trees, telegraph poles, shops, everywhere, what a beautiful place, even at midnight after an exhausting nineteen plus hour trip, the place was gorgeous beyond belief. Surely we have the wrong Charlevoix, “there can’t be a nuclear power plant in this beautiful neck of the woods!”
We drove about half way down the main drag of Charlevoix, still US31, and went over the draw bridge that crosses the canal that joins Lake Michigan to the Round Lake which then joins Lake Charlevoix and there is was, on the left hand side – The Weathervane, our home for the next two (2) weeks.
We parked in front of the reception and I asked if this is where Big Rock Point is located. She said “Yes Sir, just 5 miles north of here off of US31”. We were relieved but still in a little shock.
We entered our room and crashed out. 05:00 came too soon but up I got, showered and drove to the plant. Still amazed with the views I turned onto the site, parked and found the BNFL trailer. “Wow hi Mick, we didn’t expect to see you until tomorrow following your long trip!” Does this not reverberate with my experience on my first day at Longannet all of those years ago – you think I would learn wouldn’t you! Stubbornly, and full of adrenalin, fear and trepidation, there was no way I was going back to the hotel. The PM summoned all the BNFL staff and we all met in the conference room for introductions. Wow it was crazy, incredibly nice people, all very interested in knowing about the family and me, question after question after question, all very nice. Time went and the PM said it was now time to meet the Big Rock site staff, gulp, this is getting heavy!
So off we went into the admin block and all the Big Rock management team were in there waiting for me following the completion of their daily morning meeting. Blown over, what tremendous people, questions flying left right and center with the following question that remains in my mind. The plant Engineering Manager asked how much gas was now in the UK (By the way he and his family became close and still are our dear friends). I thought what a strange question, but, despite being extremely nervous, I gave it some thought and proceeded to state how much butane and propane gas was in the UK. As I was approaching the conclusion of my response I could see the smiles appearing on my audience – the penny then dropped – he meant petrol! I quickly collected myself and laughed stating my error in understanding and explained it certainly broke the ice.
So introductions eventually concluded and off I went for a one to one with my new boss. Well Mick we want to you develop this waste container design and fabrication while you are here this week and on Thursday we are going to Washington to meet with the NRC (the US regulator) at their HQ. We want you to present this containment building modification. Big Rock’s senior management will be there and after that we will go to our head office on Monday where you can meet BNFL Inc’s management. We will be spending the weekend in Washington DC so you and the family can do some site seeing.
I was dumbfounded. I thought I was going there to see the area, meet some folk and have basically a nice relaxing two (2) weeks with all expenses paid with some minimal work just in Michigan – Wrong!
I went back to the hotel and shared these revelations with the family – wow they were all excited, me, well I was shaking inside like a leaf! So the week progressed and I did my assignments working with the site team and also with one of our sister offices in California. Found it quite challenging because of the regulation and code differences but nonetheless my boss was very happy by close of business Wednesday. Now it was time for the preps for the NRC meeting on Friday. Spent Thursday morning trying to get up to speed then we all traveled to Traverse City to catch our afternoon flight to Washington DC. We arrived early evening, it was dark by then, loaded our luggage into the hire car and off we drove towards out hotel, via some site seeing such as the White House, very nice indeed.
We arrived at our downtown DC hotel, very nice, and dinner had been arranged with the Owner and President of MOTA who did the planning and provided the labor for our MCR project (A Company that eventually I would become part owner of a few years later – who would have predicted that!!!!) and a Senior Project Manager of Sargent & Lundy (S&L) who provided engineering and licensing support based out of Chicago (he would eventually become an owner of S&L, he and his family have been our closest friends for the last decade or so with us spending most Thanksgivings with them at their home in Chicago and vacationing with them in Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland over the last few years).
Dinner occurred and proved to be very nice indeed for numerous reasons with the most salient aspect being how that still, to this day, all the Americans present still comment on how well behaved our kids were and what excellent manners they had (Well done kids – now 28 and 26!).
So Friday arrived and we had a working breakfast with our Big Rock colleagues in preparation for the NRC meeting later that morning. I said good bye to the family and off I went with the Team to catch the subway to make our way to the NRC offices – me gradually getting more and more petrified as the NRC offices approach – talk about being dropped into the deep end.
We arrive, clear security and off we go to the conference room. The NRC staff are there waiting, we are directed to our seats and introductions made. The meeting and presentations commence. My turn occurs without issue, a couple of questions asked, and no problems, answered to their satisfaction. An hour later the meeting is concluded and we leave to take the subway back to the hotel – I am extremely relived and ready for some beers – let the weekend commence.
A couple of BNFL Inc. staff offer to stay with us over the weekend to help and show us some sites. We had a trip to the Smithsonian to name but one venue and the weekend was done. The next item on the itinerary was a trip to the BNFL Inc. head office for introductions with an afternoon flight back to Michigan to finish off my assignments prior to returning to the UK the following Saturday. So we arrived at about 09:00 and I am given the tour. I then get invited into the President’s office for a met and greet. All went very well and after about 15 minutes and it seemed that it was the right time for me and my boss to leave the office another two people arrived, it was the VP of HR for BNFL Inc. and the VP of Engineering, They both sat down and asked me to join them at a conference room type table with the President and my boss sitting on the opposite side. What the heck is going on here I thought. OK then Mick - the questions started to machine gun out, technical, business, personal, all sorts, this was a damn formal interview that was totally unexpected and certainly not prepared for by myself. No time to get anxious, I just responded as well as I could.
Apparently about an hour passed and the questioning stopped. My ‘new’ boss stated that he was very pleased with how quickly I had adapted and accepted the work given to me at Big Rock and also the quality of my presentation to the NRC. The penny dropped again, it was all a big test. He continued to state that he expected some push back from me when the assignments and arrangements were set out at such short notice but that he was pleasantly surprised that I just got on with it. Wow, the President then stated that he was very pleased and looked forward to working with me with a similar statement made buy the VP of Engineering. I was very happy but little did I know what was going to happen next.
The VP of HR commenced by saying “OK Mick you are aware the MCR project is scheduled to run for six (6) years”. Yes I was, tell me something I don’t know. “So when you join us you will have time to settle down and found a house, etc. etc.” Yes of course, I responded, and? He then provided me with some paperwork to review prior to signing and processing. I quickly scanned the first couple of sheets and almost fell off my chair. Hold on a moment I said. This is supposed to be a 12 month assignment with our return to the UK early 2001! We know that he said but you have done so well, the Big Rock site people have commented how much they like you despite you having only been with them a week we want you to leave BNFL and join us here at BNFL Inc. full time. Hold on hold on!!! We need to make some calls and if we are quick we can get me boss in the UK before he leaves for the day!
So the call is made and he picks up. I summarized the situation I found myself in and my boss said no way, this is not what we agreed. Discussions went on with no conclusion made. We agreed to terminate the call and management would resolve this over the following few days. We all shook hands and left for the airport.
We got back to Charlevoix and back on the plant Tuesday morning. Our flight back to the UK was the following Saturday so I worked to the Thursday and they allowed me to take the Friday off to allow us to look around the area in a little more detail and visit the local middle and high schools. The school visits were fun with all of us being very impressed with the standard and number of IT associated equipment available for that time although the middle school was a little archaic, typical of what you see in the movies.
A funny situation arose when we met with the principal of the middle school where my daughter would attend. Note that at this time my son was keen on moving to the States but my daughter, who would be starting secondary school in 2000, was devastated about leaving Scotland. We sat in his office when he appeared, we all shook hands but my daughters head went straight into her hands she was so upset. The principal went over a few things and tried his best to cheer her up but without success but he gave it one (1) final shot as we said our goodbyes. “Well I hope that you will enjoy being with us next year should you come and we will do our bloody best to make it fun for you.” He said as we started to leave the room not realizing that ‘bloody’ was not really appropriate to use in front of young children, but it did get a titter from our daughter so it was worth the little faux pas.
We arrived back in Scotland and we discussed our experiences but the shadow of what the corporate agreement was still hanging over us. We agreed that we would only accept the one (1) year assignment especially with the delicate situation with my daughter and her reluctance to move. By the end of the following week I was advised that BNFL Inc. reluctantly accepted the original arrangement but that they wanted me their ASAP, i.e. this side of Christmas. Further discussion took place at home and the decision was made. It’s only a year; it’s a wonderful opportunity for both us and the kids; and Charlevoix is one hell of a nice place. So it was the second week in December and off I went to Charlevoix for an almost three (3) week stint while we started on completing the VISA paperwork for the family and I, no small endeavor by the way.
The date, early February 2000, was set for us all to leave the UK. A couple of parties held in the East Kilbride neighborhood and our close friends visiting to wish us luck, etc. During my December trip I was lucky to be guided to a nice property in Charlevoix that was to be rented for a year that was convenient to down town and the right side of town to get to Big Rock without having to fight the draw bridge I mentioned earlier! The draw-bridge, although very pretty opens, up every 30 minutes on the hour and on the half past, to allow for boats to traverse from and to Lake Michigan from the Round Lake and Lake Charlevoix. In the summer this causes major delays due to the volume of traffic so you have to time your trips well!
So the work commenced and the kids started their relevant schools. The year went so quickly it was frightening and, as the months passed, we all, especially the kids, settled in very well. My daughter’s reluctance to leave Scotland diminished pretty rapidly so obviously the next problem was ahead of us – going back! As the year progressed thoughts of returning to the UK required plans to be made when about nine (9) months in I was summoned to my bosses office with his boss and a corporate HR person in there waiting. Here we go again I thought, well at least they have the right people there to make the return transition a little more smother and timely. Well well well, I did not expect to hear what they proceeded to tell me. “The work is going so well that both we and the client want you to stay on to see then end of the reactor vessel removal, transportation and disposal”. This was music to my ears but I didn’t want to seem too enthusiastic. This would mean at least another two (2) years in the States.
That evening I shared the potential to extend with Wendy, then the kids, no brainer, we were all in agreement to stay. I reported the same the following day and all were happy.
As years two (2) and three (3) passed the work continued to go well and with the working regime of four (4) days on, three (3), Friday, Saturday and Sunday off followed by five (5) days on and (2) off, Saturday and Sunday, we had time, generally, to explore a bit. Albeit the work days started at 06:00 and finished at 17:00, they were long and many went late into the evening at certain times when critical activities were ongoing.
The big decision now had to be made, Visa’s required renewal and Wendy and I decided that returning to the UK would be difficult, especially with the kids, so we decided to apply independently for Green Cards. Applications were underway and 2003 appeared in a blink of an eye. The reactor was removed, packaged and ready to transport. We had just received new Visas but by the end of the year we were destined to go home. I accompanied the reactor shipment to its disposal site, the subject of another wee story - link:
During the trip that took eight (8) days I made several phone calls and drafted emails. BNFL wanted me back in the UK before Christmas, the family wanted to stay in the US, so did I. Fortunately BNFL Inc. and the utility wanted me to stay to see the end of the project, slated for 2005, but to facilitate this I would need to jump ship and join the US company. This was a very major decision for numerous reasons but it was taken. On arriving at home just over a week later, mid-October 2003, I received my offer letter from BNFL Inc. and I drafted and sent my resignation letter to BNFL in the UK. So here we were me as a full time employee of a US company and fortuitously our Green Card applications processing. The project continued well and during 2004 I was made the Project Manager. With the appearance of 2005 the job was coming to an end. What was in store for me now work wise? BNFL offered me two (2) opportunities, one (1) at Hanford, Washington state and the other at their offices in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Oak Ridge was the favored choice of the two (2) but I was not overly enthused. March appeared and out of the blue the President of the company (MOTA Corporation) that had planned the work and provided the labor for the last five plus (5) years at Big Rock called and offered me the position of Project Director. Based in West Columbia, South Carolina, this was a great opportunity. Down side was that the kids would stay in Michigan with Wendy for 18 months or so but at least we did own our house up there now and where obviously very settled in.
The decision was taken and I joined MOTA mid-March 2005 and never looked back, well not until 2011 two (2) years after we sold the company to a German outfit. I shall return to this shortly.
As mentioned above, the application for the Green Card was progressing and to cut a long story short, with all the trips we had to make with the DHS, solicitor, medical offices, etc., etc. (9/11 had obviously happened), over $10,000 in fees, etc. had been spent and in May 2005 we received our Green Cards. We were now good for ten years, becoming permanent US Residents – a major achievement.
Work was going well with MOTA and in mid-2006 I was extremely lucky and offered part ownership of the company becoming COO and loading myself up with all the trials and tribulations that role brings. We found a great place to buy and our Son decided to relocate to Park City, Utah, with Guardians, to follow his snowboarding aspirations. This was a hard decision but when I was in my teens I wanted to and was given the opportunity to race motorbikes but didn’t follow up. I have always regretted this so the decision to allow our Son to go to Utah, although not easy as he was only just turned 15, was a no brainer. Back to my employee! The job was basically 24/7 for nearly three (3) years. We had, over that period, projects in Michigan, California, Illinois, Ohio, Washington and we also opened up an office in the UK. It was hard but things went well, so much so that, as stated above, we sold the Company to a German outfit that will remain nameless in early 2009. Things were promised, subject to receiving the largest project we had ever bid on, and I started as the SVP for Operations and Engineering with the President’s position being offered on winning the ‘big one’. 2011 appeared and we won it. An ongoing project at that time was going poorly in Michigan and, due to senior site staff illness, I found myself on site for three (3) moths to complete the project. Well during those three (3) months the knives came out so to speak and the ‘promised’ role was not offered, for numerous reasons according to the Germans so, we parted company in August of that year. I was very bitter, especially after spending those months on site digging the company out of a hole.
This was the lowest most point in my career. In the US, no job and well and truly screwed by ‘The Germans’ to coin a phrase from the brilliant movie “Snatch”. So I started to view the job sites and made some calls. I was fortunate to have a couple of offers come in fairly quickly although looking back they were worrying times.
It was early October 2011 and I was riding my Kawasaki Concours 1400 the 122 mile trip to my new job location, a three reactor nuke in the north west of South Carolina. Very lucky in some ways because I could return home at the weekends and, at a push, go home in the week if necessary but once again I would be away from home, something I did not expect to do after turning 50.
The job was good, I was with a great Company based out of Chicago and it was a senior electrical engineering position so I had to get my books out again. After nearly twenty-five years I would be practicing electrical engineering - excellent. This was in addition to the fact that the IEE I mentioned previously that I became a member of in 1993 was subsequently changed to the IET, Institute of Engineering Technology in the early 2000’s. In 2009 I was elected a fellow of the IET so now became a FIET, something I am very proud of and sure a lot of folk in my early career days would not think I would aspire to.
So I started to study and part and parcel of the new job was that I had to qualify to a certain standard taking tests in multi varying electrical facets such as motor and transformer design, fault calculations to name just a couple. Very rewarding and something that I did not anticipate doing as I approached 51 years of age! I worked on this job for just over three (3) years on and completing the same project which was just over $1B in total cost – very interesting and involved to say the least. The interesting aspect of this era of my career was that it had its pressures but they were short lived compared to my previous roles as a COO and SVP. These roles were around the clock efforts, very stressful and never seeming like I had any free time for several years, indeed I did not take any vacation between 2006 and 2011.
As the end of 2014 approached an opportunity presented itself to work at a local plant that also had two (2) new reactors under construction located only 18 miles from home. I was quite happy working with the Chicago company but how could I turn this down. It was a company I was familiar with and, my new boss would be a person who had worked at Big Rock in the late nineties, talk about a small world. So the deal was done, back into my old familiar role as a Project Manager with side line duties of trying to garner new work on the new construction. I was ready. I started in December of 2014 and spent a week up at my new head office in Reading, Pennsylvania, completing induction and meeting my new colleagues.
My first day on site was the first week of January 2015. It was great being able to ride to work every day now on my new BMW R1200GSA – I lost the Kawasaki after 77,000 trouble free miles thanks to a texting woman who crashed into the back of me while I was slowing down for a red light coming home from the NW South Carolina plant one Thursday evening – great bike, still miss it although the Beemer has been a long time dream bike.
So another era had started and, hopefully, it will see me out as my 40th year comes to an end and I am targeting retiring in just over four (4) years.
In conclusion it has been a career I never could have predicted. At the start I thought I was in a job for life with the CEGB and its subsequent reincarnations. But that was not to be. Due to constantly getting itchy feet, having a lack of confidence, still to this day. I always wanted to climb that ladder and prove myself, counter intuitive in some ways I suppose but that was me. That’s why I wanted to get a degree because I always felt that I was sub-par to my ‘professional’ colleagues and indeed, a lot of them treated me that way so getting the first class and then my Fellowship with the IET has, in some ways, settled my desire to prove myself yet I do still have an inferiority complex but one that I recognize and have come to terms with at last.
So 40 years have gone and the simple message is no matter what you feel, the perceived challenges you have, the shortfalls that hinder you, screw it and go for it, have a go if that’s what you want – what have you got to lose!!!