Dr. Zack. T. Pate

U.S. Nuclear Navy

Zack Taylor Pate, born and raised in Georgia, entered the U.S. Naval Academy in July 1954. As a midshipman, he excelled in academics and leadership. Pate ranked 9th in order of merit in the Class of 1958, and was the Second Regiment Commander in the Brigade. He was among the 10 classmates selected for an Admiral Arleigh Burke doctorate program. Upon graduation on 4 June 1958, Pate was commissioned a Line Ensign.

Eager for shipboard duty before attending graduate school, Pate requested and was ordered to a destroyer in the Atlantic Fleet. After qualifying as Fleet Officer of the Deck, he attended submarine school, served in a diesel submarine, and then attended nuclear power school. He then served in 4 nuclear submarines including duty as chief engineer in USS HENRY CLAY (SSBN-625). 

In 1970, Pate earned a doctorate degree in nuclear engineering at MIT.

Returning to nuclear submarines, he served as executive officer in USS THOMAS JEFFERSON (SSBN-618) and then commanded the fast attack submarine USS SUNFISH (SSN-649). His command tour was a noteworthy success. SUNFISH was chosen for and accomplished a “SINK-EX,” an at-sea test of new weapons technology, torpedoing and sinking the first warship since WWII—an obsolete Destroyer. His ship made a “Clean Sweep” of Squadron Awards. He was awarded a Legion of Merit and each of his crew members received an award for a top-secret mission.

Near the end of his command tour, Pate was deep selected to Captain rank and received orders as PCO of USS OHIO (SSBN-726), the first of a new class of ballistic missile submarines. But her construction delays led to Pate’s assignment in 1979 as a special assistant to Admiral H.G. Rickover, USN at Naval Reactors Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Commercial Nuclear Industry

On March 28, 1979, the United States experienced its first accident in the history of commercial nuclear power generation at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania. The accident began with failures in the non-nuclear secondary system, followed by a stuck-open pilot-operated relief valve in the primary system, which allowed nuclearreactor coolant to escape into the containment building. The mechanical failures were compounded by the failure of plant operators to recognize the situation as a loss-of-coolant accident due to inadequate training and human factors. During the next several days, the extent and gravity of the accident was unclear to the managers of the plant, to federal and state officials, and to the general public. Its impact, nationally and internationally, raised serious concerns about the safe use of commercial nuclear power. The accident also crystallized anti-nuclear safety concerns among activists and the general public.

To investigate the accident, President Carter established the Kemeny Commission and Admiral Rickover assigned a nuclear trained Navy captain to the Commission to stay informed of the investigation. Rickover and his senior staff, including Pate, were briefed weekly on the Commission’s progress in understanding the accident and their developing recommendations. 

The commission recommended:

  • “The (nuclear power) industry should establish a program that specifies appropriate safety standards including those for management, quality assurance, and operating procedures and practices, and that conducts independent evaluations.
  • There must be a systematic gathering, review and analysis of operating experience at all nuclear power plants, coupled with an industry-wide international communications network to facilitate the speedy flow of this information to affected parties.”

In 1979 in response to the Commission’s principal recommendations, the commercial nuclear power industry established the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) with a mission to promote the highest levels of safety and reliability—to promote excellence—in the operation of commercial nuclear power plants.

VADM Dennis Wilkinson, USN (Ret.), well known and especially for his brief but historic message in 1954: “United States Ship Nautilus Underway on Nuclear Power” had been chosen as CEO of INPO. Pate had had a longstanding interest in nuclear safety—the subject of his doctoral thesis at MIT. The combination of that interest and the prospect of working for Wilkinson led Pate in 1980 to relinquish in-hand orders to command a nuclear submarine squadron, to retire, and then to join INPO. Rickover talked to Wilkinson and likely helped enable Pate’s selection as Chief of Staff in May 1980.

INPO was just getting started, with about 30 employees, mostly on loan at that point. Wilkinson and Pate were soon visiting industry nuclear plants frequently. When Wilkinson went on travel alone he would tell Pate “You are in charge while I’m gone, but you have no authority.” 

Both Wilkinson and Pate, as well as other retired Navy “nukes” who were now on staff, soon found that virtually all of the plants in the industry were poorly run. Low standards prevailed – Wilkinson used the words shoddy or shabby or shameful quite often. Wilkinson and Pate and senior staff considered the challenge INPO faced to be “. . . of Biblical proportions.” Wilkinson and Pate privately agreed that it would take about seven years to get INPO fully up to speed – hiring first rate staff, developing programs, training, fully understanding the commercial industry and commercial plants – then another seven years to bring most commercial plants in the U.S. up to acceptable levels of performance. These estimates turned out to be about right.

Wilkinson had committed to his family to spend no more than four years in Atlanta before moving back to California. He groomed Pate to succeed himself as CEO and kept that promise. Years later, it was not uncommon to hear people, including INPO Board members, say that Wilkinson was the ideal person to get INPO started and Pate was ideal for carrying out its mission.

Pate put great emphasis on recruiting, even well before he was CEO. It was obvious that a capable team would be required to meet the challenges ahead. It was also obvious that the best source of talent was officers leaving the Navy Nuclear Power Program. Pate made it firm policy that INPO would not recruit from the Navy but would make itself aware when officers retired or left the Navy. Following Rickover’s practice, Pate personally interviewed every applicant for an exempt position. 

By 1986, INPO had 67 employees who had Navy nuclear experience and 40 were Naval Academy graduates. In addition, INPO had assisted at least 20 retiring senior Navy officers in getting executive positions at member utilities. Placement of such officers was a win/win/win situation—for the individual, for the utility, for INPO and for Naval Academy alumni who were trained in nuclear power. Pate put a lot of focus on this option.

By the mid-80s, INPO had a prized team of experienced and motivated employees. It was conducting evaluations of every nuclear plant in the country annually and giving each plant a grade on a 1-5 scale, just as had been done by Operational Reactor Safeguard Examination (ORSE) Boards in the Navy. In addition, the training programs of every utility were being evaluated and subjected to review by an Accreditation Board in Atlanta. All programs and initiatives, all designed to promote excellence in nuclear operations, were underway in full force by 1987.

In 1994, Joseph Rees, a professor at Virginia Tech, published a book entitled “Hostages of Each Other” (the inference being that nuclear utilities were hostages of each other since an accident at one affects all). Professor Rees did his research independently by interviewing people in the industry and a few at INPO. Pate did not meet him until after the book was published.

On page 117 Rees writes “INPO has a great deal of clout — the utility executives take it very seriously.” On page 170, Rees writes about interviewing a utility CEO after an annual INPO CEO Conference. “When Zack challenged the utilities at these meetings, I knew that I had to do something . . . I knew we would have to come back and tell INPO what we had done on the (requested) initiative. And I knew that all my peers were going to be out there doing something, and I had to do something that would stack up.”

Three unique initiatives by Pate were of very significant importance in supporting INPO’s mission:

  • Early in the 1980s, Pate conceived and led the development of a set of performance indicators (PIs) that could collectively measure a nuclear plant’s performance and enable trending and goal setting. The choice and definition of indicators received extensive industry input. The PIs were put into use and goals were set for each individual plant and for the industry for 1990, and for each five-year increment thereafter. These PIs are in use worldwide.
  • The industry had in place a mutual insurance company: Nuclear Electric Insurance Limited (NEIL). In the mid-1980s, the CEO of NEIL, Quentin Jackson, and Pate worked out a win/win program whereby NEIL would give a premium credit to plants rated in the top performance category by INPO. By the late 1980s, every U.S. plant that received an excellent rating earned a very significant insurance cost savings for its owner.
  • In 1990, the INPO Board approved plans for INPO to build and (the industry) to own a customized building in Atlanta. By intent the impressive 12 story building has become “a Center of Excellence” for the industry. Many classes are taught in the building and virtually all plant managers receive training there before assuming the position.

When a member utility’s progress was too slow, or when the nuclear program was not getting sufficient attention or support by senior management, INPO had the option of requesting a meeting with the utility’s Board of Directors. During Pate’s tenure he met with member Boards 42 times. Seven of these meetings were requested by the utility for briefings and discussions. The other 35 were requested by INPO to urge the Board to take steps to improve performance. Pate was always accompanied by 2 or 3 members of his senior staff. These meetings were almost always successful. Rarely, but sometimes, it took two meetings with the Board. Pate was relentless.

After a slow start in the 1980s, the industry embraced INPO almost universally and INPO became their partner in the mutual quest for the highest levels of safety and reliability. Some examples of progress:

  • The percentage of time on line producing electricity was 62.7% in 1980 and 82.6% by 1995. That is equivalent to having 25 new nuclear units on the U.S. grid.
  • The average number of unplanned scrams (shutdowns) per plant per year was 7.3 in 1980 and down to 0.9 by 1995.
  • The average radiation exposure per unit in pressurized water reactors in the industry was 417 person-Rem in 1980 and down to 163 by 1995.

By the time of Pate’s retirement in 1998, the U.S. nuclear power industry had moved from being an international laggard to a world leader.

Global Nuclear Leadership

In 1986, Russia suffered a nuclear power plant disaster at its Chernobyl station. The slowly unfolding story of the Chernobyl accident became more shocking every day for several days. The INPO senior management team was soon into discussions about what, if anything, INPO should do. Key decision makers on this question were Bill Lee, chairman and CEO of Duke Energy and an INPO Board member, RADM Stan Andersen, USN (Ret.), head of INPO’s international program, and Pate. They soon formed the opinion that an international safety organization, modeled after INPO, would be an ideal solution. But they knew such an organization could not bean expanded INPO and it could not have its home office (headquarters) in America. And, in addition, it could not be run by an American. After all, the U.S. nuclear industry was still an international laggard and the TMI accident was still fresh in many memories.

A committee of key people was established to quietly plan an international safety organization. The plan soon called for four regions with the regional centers located in Moscow, Paris, Atlanta, and Tokyo. Utilities would join regions along mostly geographic lines. This would ease cultural and language difficulties, although the official language would be English, as is the case in the airline industry. A Coordinating Center would be located in London. Each region would have a Board and two members from each region and a chairman from any region would comprise a nine-member Main Governing Board. The search for a non-American chairman led to Lord Walter Marshall, then chairman and CEO of a giant utility that served all of the UK. After initially proclaiming no interest because the whole idea was doomed to failure, Marshall agreed to be the first chairman. He was an excellent choice as he had a powerful personality and was well known and influential in Europe and Japan.

Marshall chaired a planning meeting in Paris in 1987 and senior representatives from 26 countries agreed on the principle of forming an international safety organization along the lines described above. Pate was involved in every step of the planning and execution. He and Marshall, and their wives, became good friends, visiting each other’s homes several times. The inaugural meeting for the new World Association was held in Moscow in 1989. Top-level executives from 28 countries came down to a stage and signed a charter, becoming a member of WANO. The first meeting of the WANO Governing Board, chaired by Marshall, was held the next day in Moscow. Pate promised the full support of INPO and he delivered in spades. WANO was underway.

WANO adopted most of INPO’s programs, but there was strong resistance to including peer reviews (evaluations) — the most important INPO program. Members of the Board had heard too much about tough and critical INPO evaluations. After gaining the confidence of WANO Board members, and Marshall’s agreement, Pate proposed that INPO lead multinational pilot peer reviews in each region and get resulting opinions from management at the plant and utility involved. The Board approved and seven pilots were conducted over the next year or so led by INPO, but with many members from other countries on the teams of 20 to 25 professionals. Pate and his senior staff hand-picked the team leader for each pilot. Pate joined the teams in three of the most critical countries: Russia, Hungary, and South Africa. At the first all member meeting in Tokyo, two years after Moscow, reports from management where the pilots were conducted were so overwhelmingly positive that the WANO Board unanimously approved adding peer reviews as a WANO program. This was a critical step for WANO’s long-term impact and success.

Rémy Carle from France succeeded Marshall as the second chairman. WANO was making progress, but it was often said that it took five times as long as for INPO. Pate had attended every WANO Board meeting, always positive and supportive, and had gained the confidence of many WANO colleagues. In 1997, he was unanimously elected chairman. The initial resistance, even resentment, of American leadership had been overcome.

In the late 1990s, Pate became more and more involved in WANO, with the full support of the INPO Board. He served his last year with INPO as chairman and CEO and was unanimously elected chairman emeritus upon his retirement. He is the only person to hold that honorary title.

Not long after Pate became WANO chairman, a peer review team found very serious safety deficiencies at a nuclear plant in a nation that had been a part of the Former Soviet Union (FSU). After being briefed himself, Pate had the team leader brief the full WANO Board at a meeting in London. The Board understood the severity of the deficiencies. However, WANO did not have the clout through peer pressure that INPO had. After thorough discussion and an overnight “think about it” period, the Board of nine members agreed that those Board members from countries that were members of the “G-7” would brief appropriate government officials on this urgent and threatening situation. Pate soon met with U.S. Department of Energy officials and with Vice President Gore and his chief of staff. Gore took up the issue and promptly wrote a courier-delivered letter to the president of the country involved. A few weeks later Gore visited the country. Within a few months after the Board meeting in London the flawed plant was permanently closed. The word got around (and was passed around) that WANO could exercise clout by calling on governments – but that it would only do so in extreme situations.

Over 30 Russian designed nuclear plants were operating in Russia and FSU countries. These all belonged to the WANO Moscow Center. It was understood from the outset that this fleet deserved priority by WANO. Pate put special focus on the Moscow Center, knowing that, unlike in the other centers, support of the Russian Government was critical. During his chairmanship, Pate met with the Russian Minister of Energy four times and made frequent other trips to Russia. This focused attention paid off — by the end of his chairmanship the WANO Moscow Center was organizing and leading peer reviews at all Russian and FSU plants.

During his tenure as CEO of INPO, Pate had received quite a few awards or honors. In each case he realized and often discussed the thought that it was the INPO team that had really earned the award, and that such awards were only very rarely given to people “down in the ranks.” 

After consulting with colleagues and members of the WANO Board he drafted a charter for a WANO Award that would emphasize the selection of professionals well below the CEO level. Near the end of Pate’s term as chairman, the WANO Board approved a program for the “WANO Nuclear Excellence Award.” Over the past 17 years just over 50 awards have been given, with a significant majority to people well below the top – people such as a Maintenance Manager at a nuclear plant. The awards are presented at the WANO Biennial General Meetings before an audience of 300 to 400 people. 

By the year 2000, every country with a program for generating electricity from nuclear energy was an active member of WANO. Pate served as chairman for five years, the longest tenure to date. He had attended 41 of WANO’s first 42 Board meetings. When he retired in 2002, the Board unanimously elected him chairman emeritus, an honorary title that he holds today.

INPO celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2019 in Atlanta. Industry performance was at an all-time high with ~100 U.S. plants operating an average of 93.4% of the time and generating ~20% of the electricity consumed in America. The U.S. nuclear industry is widely recognized as the world leader in overall performance—in safety and reliability.

WANO celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2019 in London. Membership includes 451 operating nuclear plants in 29 countries (with 52 more under construction). Every operating nuclear electric plant in the world now hosts a periodic peer review by a multinational WANO team and a grade on a 1-5 scale as determined by WANO. Virtually all plants are making progress in safety and reliability.

There is abundant evidence and opinion that, through creative and determined leadership, Dr. Pate brought about major improvements in the safety and reliability of nuclear electric generating plants, not only in the United States, but worldwide.

Dr. Pate has consistently displayed the highest level of moral, ethical and courageous performance in his totally dedicated service to the national and international commercial nuclear power industry and as a United States Naval Officer in service to America. He and his wife Bettye celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary in 2019. She has been his partner and counselor throughout his Navy and civilian careers — and has served as a role model and friend to many, many wives. They are a family of strong faith and give generously to Christian and other worthy causes. As one example, in recent years they have matched funds set aside by the WANO Board for a WANO scholarship program managed by the London Office.

What People Have Said

Dr. Pate cemented the transformation of the nuclear industry from one of mediocre performance and divergent individual operational philosophies to the most outstanding national nuclear entity in the world.

Dr. Neil E. Todreas
Professor Emeritus of Nuclear Science and Engineering, and of Mechanical Engineering
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

When the Chernobyl Accident made European nuclear utilities realize there was a need for an organization like INPO on a worldwide level, our first reaction was to consult with Dr. Pate.

Rémy Carle, retired deputy general manager of Electricité de France and WANO’s second chairman

In my view, Dr. Pate has made a greater contribution to nuclear safety worldwide than any other living person.

Sam Nunn, former U.S. senator

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