Montana Tech

Alumni

Good chemistry

By Gerard O'Brien of The Montana Standard

When Montana Tech grad Don McBride was just starting his college career, he'd never heard of the Hanford nuclear plant in Washington.

Now he's a senior consultant for dismantling and cleanup of some plant's more dangerous and toxic sites.

"I don't think I knew how to spell Hanford when I took an internship there one summer. But they hired me back upon completion of my senior year."

Within a few years he worked his way through positions that included operations manager and facility manager of some of Hanford's most challenging nuclear facilities.

His rise to manager could be called meteoric, at least to some observers, but he credits Tech, which gave him a strong foundation, not only in the sciences but in communication, with his success.

"If you are unable to communicate your ideas among other engineers or the public, your project is sunk," he said.

McBride now lives on the banks of the Columbia River in the Tri-Cities area where he and his family are able to enjoy the abundant salmon and steelhead fishing — one of his passions — and maintain strong community ties through his volunteer work with the Knights of Columbus.

Q. How did you choose your area of study?

A. I actually started Tech in petroleum engineering with a double major in computer science, but I gravitated toward chemistry. My father was a chemistry professor in New York so I grew up with it. It was a real natural subject for me. And, the Montana Tech chemistry department is a gem.

My father, James McBride, was fairly old when I was born in New Rochelle, N.Y. He had retired as professor when I was young. Later, my mother, Gwen McBride, a mining engineer, moved the family to Montana since we had some mining property in the Little Belt Mountains. She was a minerals scientist for the Great Northern Railroad in her late 30s when she married my father.

Q. Why did you choose Tech?

A. For one thing, low cost was a factor. I went from being fairly flush, as our silver mine was being developed, to dirt poor when the price of silver crashed. This was in the early '80s. At that time, it cost about $477 a semester to go to Tech. That was pretty dang cheap to begin with. A lot of it was due to the reputation Tech has as a science and technical school. And the small classroom size was a plus. Tech has really solid job placement, so you can count on having a career coming out of there. Tech also is pretty good at placing summer interns. I started as a chemist at the Hanford site in Richland, Wash. By the time I returned to school in the fall, I had a job offer once I completed my senior year.

Q. How did your career progress?

A. Rockwell was the lead contractor at Hanford. It has a job rotation program whereby employees switched jobs every six months. I ended up as a process engineer at the plutonium separation site.

Then Westinghouse took over, followed by Babcock and Wilcox, then Fluor Corp., all between 1986 and 2004.

I became operations supervisor, environmental engineering manager, operations manager and finally, facilities and project manager.

Hanford is in a cleanup mode; its mission changed throughout the late '80s. Now it is in an environmental restoration mode. Some of the sites are high-hazard facilities so there was a need to keep them safe. The reclamation project I'm on currently is projected to spend $2 billion by 2013. Our division budget is about $50 million a year. I was operations manager at the plutonium processing site, making plutonium safe for storage. In about 2004, I left Fluor and joined Polestar, a consulting company in nuclear engineering, demolition and management. So I was full-time consulting for demolition of the buildings. The main concern was to protect the river corridor from pollution.

What I can't emphasize enough for students is that yes, you need the technical background to rise to the management level of an operation. But you also need good communication skills — public speaking skills and technical writing skills — to be successful in a management role. You may have the best idea on how to perform a task safely, but you need to communicate your ideas clearly.

Q. What is your proudest moment in your career?

A. Being promoted to the facility manager. I had been on the site for about 14 years and was 34 years old at the time. It was viewed as a pretty rapid career advancement.

Also, in 2004 I was the recipient of an Alumni Recognition award at Tech.

Q. What goals or project did you accomplish of which you are most proud?

A. Biggest of my accomplishments was leading a processing campaign at the cold vacuum drying facility, part of the spent fuels project. As facility manager for that project, we had a 50 percent reduction in cycle times, which saved about $1 million a year. It was said we couldn't reach that milestone, but we shaved about half of the processing time, which brought the project back into its projected timeline.

It involved safely packaging spent nuclear fuel moved from a site on the banks of the Columbia River. Ultimately it is designed to go to Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada. The concern was if there had been a seismic event the site would be very seriously threatened. The fuels are located right there and had to be stored under water in a concrete basin. If that cracked, we'd have poisoned the river. The overall project was completed barely in time for a major milestone.

A non-work related goal was my time volunteering for activities with Knights of Columbus, a Catholic service organization. I am currently a state officer in that organization as well. We raised money for our local grade school and many other vital charities. It also got me reconnected with Catholicism.

Q. Tell us about some memorable college experience, either how it applies to your work today or just something that was fun for you at Tech.

A. I was in the Copper Guards, a sophomore service organization responsible for keeping the lights lit on the M. I got to hit the switch to make M flash V when Tech won a game, as well as climb up there to change the lights when they burned out.

On the academics side, the cool thing I experienced at Tech as an undergraduate, was the availability of high-end analytical lab equipment. In most schools you don't get to touch that equipment until you're a grad student. Compared to a large college, the largest Tech chemistry classes were about eight students. It helped impress my employers that I knew how to use and repair this high-tech equipment.

I rebuilt a gas chromatograph in one of my summer jobs at Mountain States Energy in Butte. And, Don and Andrea Stierle were memorable professors. Just super folks, celebrities really.

Q. Who is a favorite hero to you, a mentor, public or private, and why?

A. Both my father and mother, really a unique story. He was 67 when I was born and mom was 37. Dad was a Professor for decades in a small private school in New Rochelle. Just the fact that he dedicated his career to education instead of going after the big bucks means he was in it as a labor of love. It taught me a lot about chemistry. Mom held the family together with little in the way of funds and was a brilliant lady. The fact that she had given up a career was a real sacrifice.

In the Little Belts, everyone knew her. Our place was in Hughesville. I went to grade school and high school in Great Falls.

Also, my best friend in Great Falls, who is a policeman there now, was always an inspiration to me. He always wanted to be a policeman, not an engineer. He tried Tech, but finally went off to do what he really wanted. He is Mike Stimac. He taught me to do what you enjoy doing, don't try to meet someone else's expectations.

Q. How did Tech serve you in your past, current or even potential jobs. Give us some examples.

A. Tech directly started me on my career path with the summer internships. Otherwise the odds of me ending up here would have been nil. Tech has a great reputation with the employers around here. There are quite a few Tech grads in this area. It's because the curriculum has so much hands-on experience. Plus, the emphasis on technical writing is a good requirement. It makes the lay person easily understand technical issues.

Q. What advice would you give high school students who are considering entering college?

A. 1. A positive attitude is just as important as people's skills and experience. If you are trying your best, eager to work and eager to please, you'll do well.

2. Don't be afraid of doing the hard work or tedious activities. Don't cut corners or accept the easy answers. We see that a lot in the engineering field. People see the plausible answer as it comes along, but they haven't explored it enough to be sure.

3. Communication skills. Sell your ideas to the public. Take all the practice you can on presentation skills, public speaking and technical writing. Especially if you struggle at this, it is more important to take a class that forces you to do public speaking. I was painfully shy in high school, but through work and volunteering it has become one of my strengths.

When I first started working, my viewpoint was from the science and technical issues and where to prioritize my efforts. I attended some public hearings on an EIS for our process at Hanford. You would have thought we were war criminals. Those public hearings were my first experience with a very hostile crowd. It was just an eye opener; the depth of emotion and concern by folks.

Q. What guides your life?

A. I think putting my Catholic upbringing putting that into practice. I drifted away from that in high school, but with the KC and community support here, it brought that back into focus.

For fun, we do salmon and steelhead fishing. I grew up doing a lot of fishing for trout in Montana and big game hunting. When I moved out here it became big game fishing.

Since I live right on the Columbia, there are world-class, even epic walleye and salmon fishing here.

About Don McBride

Age: 43

Current address: Banks of the Columbia River.

Attended Montana Tech: 1982-86, Bachelor's degree in Chemistry

Personal data: Spouse: Julie, formerly McConwell, a Butte Central graduate and St. Mary's College graduate; four children: Alisha a high school senior, Caitlin a high school junior, Kelcey, a high school freshman and son, Trevor, sixth-grader.

The Hanford Site is a decommissioned nuclear production complex on the Columbia River in south-central Washington operated by the U.S. government. The site has been known by many names, including Hanford Works, Hanford Engineer Works, Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Hanford Project. Established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, it was home to the BReactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world. Plutonium manufactured at the site was used in the first nuclear bomb, tested at the Trinity site, and in Fat Man, the bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan.

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