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After life on sub, ex-Celt makes living in nuclear science

McNary grad Brandon MacDonald with wife Melissa and son Jared. (KEIZERTIMES/Eric A. Howald)

Of the Keizertimes

After high school, Celt Brandon MacDonald went to a U.S. Navy recruiter and made a request that nearly knocked the man out of his chair.

“I informed them that ‘I want to join the Navy and be on a submarine,’” MacDonald said. “It wasn’t exactly the normal method of getting someone to join up.”

Not only did MacDonald, a member of the 1997 McNary High School state championship  football team, get his wish, he ended up with a career in nuclear science as part of the deal.

MacDonald had already applied and been accepted to his college of choice, but he was drawn to military service. While his father was a Navy vet, MacDonald said he never felt pushed.

“I still felt the calling that I, too, wanted to serve in my country’s armed forces,” he said.

The recruiter reviewed his scores on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude exam and paired him with the Navy Nuclear Power Program. MacDonald had a passing interest in math and science in high school, but prepping for his new career made him realize just how much he’d missed.

“I had a vague interest in science, but not an overwhelming one.  Looking back, I wished I had applied myself more in the math and science fields while in high school,” he said.

After passing the nuclear program’s entrance exam, MacDonald was off to boot camp. From boot camp he was sent to Charleston, S.C., for further training as a nuclear machinist mate and realized how much he had still to learn.

“I quickly realized that the academic work ethic I held while in high school simply wouldn’t cut it if I wanted to pass the Navy Nuclear Power School,” he said. “That place had us in classrooms for eight hours a day, five days a week, followed by mandatory study/homework sessions in the evenings.  We even had to keep track of the hours we studied in the classroom every night.”

He averaged about 20 hours of studying along each week preparing for duties he would be called upon to perform as nuclear machinist mate on a submarine crew, which equates to operating the mechanical side of the propulsion,  electrical, air conditioning and fresh water systems. Classes afforded him the opportunity for hands-on training in a prototype engineroom.

“Imagine running a utility company inside of a sealed steel tube,” MacDonald said.

His first assignment was aboard the USS Henry M. Jackson. He was underway during the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“I can still remember that we were about to start practice drills when the commanding officer made the announcements of what was occurring land-side. Everything seemed to slow down to a crawl, while we all just wondered what was going to happen next,” he said.

His two longest stints underwater were 69 days, but the camaraderie close quarters forced upon the crew helped pass time.

“On a sub, you will have anywhere from 120 to 180 other men, all of whom come from different backgrounds and life experiences. You formed bonds and friendships with those who you served with unlike any I’ve ever experienced elsewhere,” he said. MacDonald still keeps in touch with several of his shipmates. The worst aspect, he said, was the time spent in isolation from loved ones.

His last underway aboard the USS La Jolla coincided with the pregnancy of his wife, Melissa, but MacDonald made it home in time to take part in the birth. His son, Jared Christopher, arrived five days later.

MacDonald left active duty in September 2010, just shy of 11 years of service, and took a post at Idaho National Laboratories, where he processes and handles nuclear material in support of the U.S. Department of Energy’s missions in nuclear and energy research. The facility has a sprawling 890-square-mile campus where scientist and engineers research: advanced nuclear fuels, materials and separations; bioenergy; fossil energy; geothermal energy; hydrogen and renewable energy systems; robotics; instrumentation control and intelligent systems; and microbiological, geological and environmental systems.

MacDonald spends a lot of time dispelling myths about working with nuclear materials as represented in pop culture. For example, he doesn’t walk around all day in shielded suits.

“Truth is, the nuclear power field is a serious and demanding business. It has a huge potential to provide large amounts of clean energy with zero pollution, but it also has the potential to be dangerous, if not properly operated or not well taken care of,” he said.

That’s not to say, all such depictions are inaccurate. He does spend many days working with “glove boxes,” large glass boxes with blue gloves afixed to the windows that allow him to hold uranium in his hands. Most often though he only wear a lab coat rubber gloves and a dosimeter, which measures the amount of radiation he’s being exposed to at any given time.

“The overall goal when dealing with personal radiation and contamination exposure is a hard and fast rule: ALARA – As Low As Reasonably Achievable,” MacDonald said.

Most days he receives less of a dose of radiation than someone who spent all day in the sun.

Success is measured in milestones: processing a certain amount of material in a set amount of time, helping to conduct an experiment, or simply learning something new.

“I’d say any day that I don’t go home glowing is a good day overall. It ultimately goes without saying, that as long as I get to come home to my family safely, I’d call a good day,“ he said

While he still ends up sealed inside a building for several hours a day and the camaraderie is still there, the work is different in other aspects.

“On the sub, I was operating an operating critical nuclear reactor. In my facility, a critical reactor is a bad thing,” MacDonald said.

He’s also still required to keep up with the ever-evolving discoveries of nuclear science in order to keep himself and co-workers as safe as possible.

“I have come to realize that I am working at a laboratory that is at the forefront to meet the nation’s environmental, energy, nuclear technology, and national security needs,” he said.