Obituary: William Purcell / Longtime nuclear engineer at Westinghouse

April 23, 1922 - Nov. 5, 2012

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William Purcell rarely got angry. In his long career as an engineer, he distinguished himself as a man who liked solving problems, not throwing punches.

But that day in 1941 on the football field against Notre Dame, the Carnegie Institute of Technology lineman had had enough. Having broken his nose the game before, Mr. Purcell was wearing special guard to protect his face. All through the first half, the Notre Dame team made fun of him. So in the second half, he tore it off and played through the pain.

That was characteristic grit for Mr. Purcell, a longtime Westinghouse nuclear engineer who helped draft the plan to store the nation's nuclear waste.

He died Nov. 5 at the age of 90 after a long run of bad health.

He leaves behind his wife, Lorraine, his son, William, his brother, John, and his sister, Mary Grace Conley. He was buried Nov. 10 in Jefferson Memorial Cemetery.

One of five children born to a North Side family, Mr. Purcell loved athletics, though his small frame made his brain more important than his bench press. In college, walking on to the Carnegie Tech football team was a side project, and one not many were sure would be successful -- he weighed in at 155 pounds. Nonetheless, he played two years and was named to Notre Dame's all-opponents team in 1941.

Then came World War II and his deployment to the Pacific, a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. During the invasion of Iwo Jima, his unit quickly reconstructed an airstrip on the island for returning B-52 bombers. The outfit received a commendation for quick work, and Mr. Purcell's commander praised his engineering prowess.

On leave, he met Lorraine through a friend. They sent each other a few letters, then many more, and that's all she wrote. They were soon married and had one son, also named William.

The war over, the young man went to work for Westinghouse, putting his mechanical engineering master's degree to use in nuclear power. It was a new technology at the time and full of frightening possibility, an irresistible pull for the engineer.

"He got in on the ground floor and worked there for the rest of his life," Mrs. Purcell said.

The engineer spent much of his career at Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin, helping design reactors for aircraft carriers, among other things.

He also spent several years in Tennessee, leading Westinghouse's efforts to build the next-generation -- and financially doomed -- Clinch River Breeder Reactor.

But perhaps his largest challenge came after his retirement from Westinghouse, when he was appointed by the Reagan administration as an associate director in the Department of Energy and charged with helping develop a plan for the country's nuclear waste.

Mr. Purcell was part of the team that eventually settled upon Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the permanent home for the waste, envisioning a mammoth underground facility that would remained sealed for up to a million years. But political opposition slowed the project from the start, eventually leading to its cancellation in 2011.

"He enjoyed very much solving problems. But when it came to political infighting and backstabbing, he really never wanted to be a part of it," his son said. "It did frustrate him. He believed very strongly in the idea that America needed to be energy-independent. He thought that technology and nuclear power could safely be a major player in that."

Returning to Pittsburgh and settling in Mt. Lebanon, Mr. Purcell rededicated himself to his golf game and various charities, including the Salvation Army.

He also remained a steadfast supporter of his alma mater, now Carnegie Mellon University.

But these are things Mr. Purcell would never tell you himself.

Modest and reflective, he was happier away from the spotlight, reading a technical manual or reveling in the quiet of the golf green.

The fire seen at the Notre Dame game was always there, though. His wife could tell you that.

"I saw him angry once when he got the assessment bill," she said, laughing.

obituaries

Andrew McGill: amcgill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1497.


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