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John W. Simpson, 92; engineer helped develop uses for nuclear power

January 22, 2007|Adam Bernstein | Washington Post

John W. Simpson, a Westinghouse executive and electrical engineer who became an early figure in the development of nuclear power for sea and space propulsion, as well as electric power generation, died Jan. 4 at Hilton Head Regional Medical Center in South Carolina. He was 92 and had pneumonia.

With Westinghouse, a foremost maker of nuclear reactors, Simpson had a leading role in nuclear projects at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee; nuclear-powered naval vessels such as the submarine Nautilus; and the Shippingport nuclear reactor project in Pennsylvania, the first full-scale civilian nuclear power plant.

After his retirement as president of Westinghouse Electric Corp.'s Power Systems Co. in the 1970s, he remained active as an energy consultant. He was regarded as an eminence in the nuclear field and an eyewitness to its emergence.

John Wistar Simpson was born Sept. 15, 1914, in Glenn Springs, S.C. He graduated in 1937 from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, but because he failed an eye exam -- he was nearsighted by the end of his senior year -- he left military service and joined Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse.

Initially he worked on electrical switchboards that helped naval vessels sustain shocks and impacts during World War II. In 1941, he earned a master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, where he also had taken courses in atomic physics.

In 1946, Simpson took a two-year leave of absence from Westinghouse to work at the Oak Ridge lab, which had played a major role in the creation of the atom bomb. Simpson began working with Oak Ridge engineers and scientists on civilian uses for nuclear-controlled power generation. He roomed with Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, who was considered the father of the nuclear Navy.

Working closely with Rickover, Simpson spent nearly a decade in a top managerial role at Westinghouse's Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin, Pa. There, he worked on federal contracts to develop the world's first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus, which was launched in 1954, as well as other nuclear-powered ships.

Westinghouse had designed and built a pressurized water reactor for the Nautilus. Simpson was responsible for ensuring that the technical operations advanced on schedule, in the face of constant military demands and the fact that no one before had successfully built and operated the necessary propulsion devices that would work underwater.

"It is not generally understood that pre-Nautilus submarines were in reality just surface ships that could operate under water for only brief periods -- as little as 30 to 40 miles at full power," Simpson wrote in his 1995 book, "Nuclear Power From Underseas to Outer Space." "The Nautilus, on the other hand, could circumnavigate the world submerged."

By the early 1960s, Simpson headed Westinghouse's astronuclear laboratory, which conducted research into development of a nuclear rocket engine under the federal Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Application program. That program was canceled in the early 1970s.

He was president of Power Systems Co. from 1969 until his mandatory retirement in 1974.

Survivors include four children and seven grandchildren.

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