Edlow International Company traces its history back to 1957 when Mr. Samuel Edlow, the company founder, became involved in the nuclear industry. During the ensuing years, the Edlow International established itself worldwide as the foremost authority on transportation logistics, fuel cycle supply, licensing, warehousing, and other specific aspects of the nuclear business.
Mr. Samuel Edlow details some of the company's earliest years in his book Reflections of a Lucky Man. Following are excerpts:
From Junk Batteries to Spent Fuel Shipping Casks: The Birth of Edlow International Company
"Although my father couldn’t very well offer me a job in his medical practice, my wife Frances’ father had an idea. As a scrap and junk dealer he routinely collected junk batteries from service stations, and sold them to reprocessors who removed and re-sold the lead. Papa Schwartz, without even trying, made some pretty decent money from junk batteries. Small peddlers would collect the batteries and sell them to him. He, in turn, would break open the batteries, recover the lead cells, and when he had a truckload would haul the lead to Indianapolis where the National Lead Company ran a secondary smelter. Papa Schwartz said he thought it would be a good business for me, and he would back me with the loan of enough money to buy a truck. I agreed. At the time, we didn’t have a car and so when Frances and I wanted to go to a movie or somewhere we drove around town in that big truck all dressed up. We soon bought a car of our own, and moved into an apartment adequate and simple in three rooms above Doctor Salon’s office.
For my new business I bought a lot in Fort Wayne and hired a man to break the batteries; this he did by dropping them on a thick steel plate. With my truck I drove around to the filling stations and collected batteries, for free or sometimes paying 50 cents to $1 apiece, depending on the price of lead. It became such a good business that I expanded to dealing exclusively with junkyards, where I bought whole truckloads of batteries that they had collected. Eventually our battery-lead business took in all of Indiana, part of Ohio, and a bit of Michigan. The time came that I was probably as big a supplier to the Indianapolis smelter as anyone.
As my new business grew, so did our new family. Jack, our first son, was born on March 22, 1949, at Methodist Hospital in Fort Wayne, and Robert was born there on February 15, 1951.
When I entered the lead business there were two commercial forms of the product: new or "primary", which is made from ore; and used or "secondary", which is recovered from batteries and other scrap-lead products.
At the Indianapolis smelter, the head of National Lead’s secondary operation was Sam Hollingsworth, whose family had founded the company. Hollingsworth’s assistant was Bob McKittrick and in 1954 he called me out of the blue to ask if he could come up to Fort Wayne for a visit. He told me that the Atomic Energy Commission was going to build a huge uranium-enrichment plant in Portsmouth, Ohio, down by the Ohio River; and it was going to require huge amounts of lead, both for shielding the workers from radiation and for the miles of pipes in the vast plumbing installations. McKittrick proposed that if I would open a lead supply plant in Columbus, Ohio, and get out of the battery-lead business, then National Lead would support me; help with supplies and materials, help with introductions, help with training. In this way I could become the lead supplier for that new AEC plant, and expand to any other activities I wanted to start in the Columbus area. It seemed like an ideal way to break into a business that was bound to grow with the development of atomic energy. I talked it over with Frances, and agreed.
Now it wasn’t said in so many words, but the whole purpose of the deal was that National Lead Company controlled most of the lead operations in the Midwest, and they needed some competition to make it look respectable. I had a reputation for being honest and efficient. It was a wonderful opportunity, and, it gave us a chance to move away from Fort Wayne, which Frances and I found to be a pleasant but provincial town. In the spring of 1954 we moved our young family to Columbus; to a new profession and a new life. We lived in that city for 16 years.
At Portsmouth the AEC planned to construct a gaseous diffusion plant that would enrich the level of uranium-235 from its natural concentration of less than one per cent in the ore up to 3 per cent for nuclear power plants, and all the way to more than 90 per cent for use in atomic bombs. Our deal meant that I would make lead ingots for the Portsmouth plant from my Columbus operations. National Lead also sold its secondary products to plumbers, such as lead pipe, sheet lead, and solder, and they wanted me to take over that trade in the area as well. My "teachers" in the lead business were two of the most knowledgeable people around, but also two of the roughest to work with because of their degenerate lifestyles: Abe Goose, head of Cambridge Smelting in Massachusetts, and Jack Flemm, who owned Flemm Lead Company of Long Island City, New York. Every few weeks I went to New York or Cambridge to watch their operations. When I learned what I was supposed to do, Goose and Flemm provided me, on consignment, all the inventory I needed to start my own business. Both men knew the trade very well, and worked very hard – that is until 5 o’clock each afternoon. Then they broke out a bourbon bottle and began to drink, usually finishing it off in an hour or two. After that they went to a health club where they sat in a steam bath to sweat out the booze, and then they went out to dinner. The next day it was the same thing all over again. In life, you just never now who your "teachers" are going to be. But if you are open-minded and inquisitive, you can always learn something from almost anyone.
With the opportunity from National Lead, and with expertise and materials from Goose and Flemm, I founded Edlow Lead Company and opened a plant on Front Street in Columbus, Ohio, in a set of abandoned brick buildings that had once been a brewery. This was ideal for the heavy operations of a lead foundry because the factory had its own railroad siding and a loading dock for trucks. I began with three employees, an office worker and two workmen in the plant. We worked long hours, and I wasn’t always home in time for dinner, but we managed to establish ourselves as a reliable, quality producer of lead products. First we installed a "pot" to melt "pig" lead, and from that we poured 25-pound ingots. With consignments from Goose and Flemm I also re-sold sheet lead, solder, lead pipe, and other lead supplies. Soon I was shipping a truck load a week to the AEC plant, and, as well, serviced the requirements of the area’s plumbers. Once a week I also made a day-trip by car down to Piketon, the little town north of Portsmouth where the AEC plant was being built. It was a beautiful drive, especially on a back road along the Scioto River. I’d meet with people at the plant, maybe take them to lunch at the Lake White Club, and through this kind of careful attention my sales flourished.
Before long I expanded my business to other customers. In late 1955, staff from Battelle Memorial Institute visited me and advised that they were building a nuclear center in West Jefferson, Ohio, about 10 miles out of Columbus. They would need large quantities of lead shielding to protect workers from radiation, and they were prepared to work with me to teach methods for pouring high-grade lead castings. If I agreed to accept their help, I could be their sole supplier. I was quick to accept, so this brought me into an entirely new field of endeavor.
At the time the National Lead Company, my benefactor, had a monopoly on lead bricks, which they made by the extrusion process: they melted and forced out long rods of lead, like toothpaste from a tube, then sawed the rods into brick-sized blocks. Elmer Lusk, my contact at Battelle, wondered if our lead foundry could make bricks by the casting method: melting and pouring the lead into molds. This would be a lot simpler, and a lot cheaper as well. Our challenge was to make a brick that was completely solid, because lead cools very quickly and when it cools it slumps, leaving gaps in the material. To make sure that the bricks had no gaps we made a set of a dozen cast-iron molds, which we heated before we poured in the molten lead. Then as we cooled the lead very gradually, we poured in more molten lead on the top, so that the mold was always full. In about two hours we had 12 solid lead bricks. And unlike National’s extruded bricks, ours had beautifully smooth edges because the inside of each mold was evenly machine-tooled. Of course, we didn’t want to under-bid National by too much, so that meant that we made more money on each brick.
Thanks to the Battelle contract, I was able to develop a method to cast lead, a process that others had ignored because of the problem with the voids from the rapid cooling. Edlow Lead Company now had a specialty product, the smooth lead bricks, but more important it had a specialty process, the lead casting technique, which I patented, and eventually licensed to three companies in Europe. Before long, Battelle asked me to cast small containers for different radioactive sources: boxes, pots, and other shapes. I’m an entrepreneur, so once I realized what I could do I decided to try to market my products to the whole nuclear industry.
The lead-casting method that I had developed was successful, and this experience made me feel, by the fall of 1956, that I was onto something important for the emerging nuclear power industry. That industry’s trade group, the Atomic Industrial Forum, held a conference at the Morrison Hotel in Chicago in September 1956 and, although I didn’t know it at the time, by attending I opened a door of opportunity that let me become an important pioneer in the development of nuclear technology.
Along with the Forum conference in Chicago that week was a trade fair sponsored by the American Nuclear Society at the Navy Pier, a huge exhibition area on Lake Michigan. At the trade fair I rented a small display area – really just a folding table covered with cloth and a curtain on which I hung an "Edlow Shields the World" banner. On velvet-covered stands I displayed lead bricks and lead pots I had made. We had a fancy brochure with price lists and specifications, and Frances was a nice-looking assistant there with me. We weren’t there to take orders, but were just introducing ourselves to the trade. Still, we created interest, especially among the many foreign visitors.
One inquisitive American who stopped by our booth was Myron Kratzer, who worked in the international division of the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the principal government agency for anything nuclear – military and civilian. Kratzer was interested in finding ways to ship nuclear materials overseas, since the United States then had an "Atoms for Peace" programs to encourage the peaceful development of nuclear technology by other countries. He sensed two things. First, at that time there was almost no nuclear-material shipment by anyone except the AEC, which dispatched radioactive isotopes from Oak Ridge. Yet the AEC knew there would be increased international commerce since the United States was positioning itself to be the supplier for the non-communist world. And they wanted to divest themselves of shipping these materials. Second, Kratzer saw that shipping spent fuel would require the use of highly specialized packaging by virtue of the extreme toxicity of the fuel itself. The high radiation levels required lead shielding of the highest integrity, and our casting methods were probably the production means required. He sensed that way down the pike I could probably be pretty good at making spent-fuel casks.
By coincidence, at university I had taken a course in Japanese Transportation, and during World War II my work as a ship’s Purser taught me all the procedures involved with shipping. So I knew both the lead business and the shipping business. Myron Kratzer said, in effect, we (the AEC) need help to develop normal commercial methods for the transportation of nuclear materials. If I, Sam Edlow, worked with the AEC to develop those methods and the regulatory framework to support them, the AEC would recommend us to act as US agent for its foreign customers. It seemed mighty good to me, and I said I’d think it over.
I talked it over with Frances. She listened, she let me follow my nose, and after careful consideration I said "Yes" to Kratzer and began several months of trips to Washington. I’d drive out of Columbus on Sunday evening, arriving at the Washingtonian Motel in Gaithersburg after midnight, work at the AEC offices in Germantown for four to five days, and drive home, arriving late Friday night. This I did for about three months, and in the course of that time I helped the AEC work out the regulations they needed to assure that nuclear materials could be shipped commercially, taking into account all of the safeguards required under the Atomic Energy Act. Life itself wasn’t easy by any means, but it was intellectually challenging, and, above all, it was laying the basis for what I believed would be a profitable and worthwhile business venture. From this developed – directly and indirectly – businesses that the family owns today. What luck that Myron Kratzer wandered by!
It was also through Myron that I met Curt Heidenreich, beginning a professional association and a friendship that has flourished for years. Curt was a real "European" in his outlook, and came to Washington to represent EURATOM, Europe’s atomic-energy agency. When I began to pioneer the methods required for the first shipments of nuclear fuel, EURATOM soon became our largest customer. I worked with Curt’s staff to set up a system that marked the status of their nuclear-material orders at each step. We helped one another in those early days, and together advanced important commercial nuclear ties between the United States and Europe.
From my work on a merchant ship I came to appreciate what a remarkable document is the bill of lading; it’s a perfect contract. The signature on a bill of lading passes the financial and legal responsibility for the cargo from the shipper to the carrier. When shipping nuclear materials, the ideal situation is to use normal, time-tested transport methods – using normal commercial bills of lading, normal commercial vehicles traveling on normal commercial routes. The AEC and we used the logic as follows: because the material being shipped is highly hazardous, the packaging used to contain the material must be of such a nature that when it is presented to the transportation environment, the shipment itself must not be hazardous, not only under normal transport stresses, but also in the event of a credible accident. Whatever safeguards are required must be in the packaging, so that the result is that the package can travel by traditional transport methods.
What makes a nuclear shipment unique? First, it’s a high-value item. Second, it’s time sensitive, and should arrive exactly when needed, neither too early nor too late. And third, it requires special packaging. Nuclear materials are the only items that encompass all three of these qualities, therefore shipping nuclear materials requires special expertise.
Along came the Atoms-for-Peace Conference in Geneva in 1958, and I decided to show my wares there. We had licensees for our lead-casting process in England, Denmark, and Italy by then, and were ready to put to use the procedures we had worked out for the AEC. A number of people stopped by our booth to visit, and asked if we could make casks to ship spent fuel – a problem that several people in the industry were anticipating. At the conference I met John Williams from the UK Atomic Energy Authority and we brainstormed about spent-fuel shipments. We concluded that, in addition to the normal special planning having to do with nuclear shipments, the additional problem of heavy lift requirement must be considered. We formed a mutual admiration society, and from our conversations I was convinced that I knew as much as anyone about this promising business of spent-fuel transportation.
At the same conference I met Bengt Swenson from the R-2 reactor in Sweden, who told me that a colleague was then in Washington working with the supplier of their new nuclear research reactor, currently being built in Sweden. I called on him the first time I was back in Washington, and that started a close relationship which eventually let to my first order for a spent-fuel shipping cask. This allowed me to come back to the AEC and say, "O.K. I have an order. Now what do we do? What are the specific criteria we must meet in order for you to license our cask, the first to be produced by private industry?"
I had already helped the AEC write the rules for shipping nuclear materials – bills of lading and all. Now I had to design and build a cask that would meet whatever requirements the AEC would establish for proper design and fabrication for this highly specialized form of packaging. Working closely with the staff of the AEC, and, using a special group at the Battelle Memorial Institute, we pioneered the formulation of the design criteria which, to all practical purposes, still prevail today. Primarily, such a cask needed to shield the radiation and transfer whatever thermal heat was generated from within the cask. Further, a means to prevent criticality (a spontaneous nuclear chain reaction) from occurring needed to be incorporated in the cask design. The first cask turned out to be a 15-ton package, in part because of the features added to assure structural integrity.
And finally the rules were set and the first spent-fuel cask was delivered to my client, AB Atomenergi of Sweden. Over succeeding years we designed, manufactured, and delivered 39 more to various clients – in Europe, the Orient, South Africa, the United States, and even Antarctica – in sizes from 1 ton each to the famous 100-ton Yankee cask and dedicated rail car.
At the beginning, the Swedes were required to ship their material to the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho for reprocessing. The same work could have been done at the AEC’s Savannah River Plant in South Carolina. Ships bringing this fuel from Sweden discharged at Savannah, Georgia, and the cask had to cross the country on a special rail car to Idaho just because the AEC said that’s where the foreign fuel should go. From an economic point of view this was ridiculous, and I negotiated with the AEC for months, and demonstrated the economic waste involved in this situation. Finally, the AEC agreed to allow my client to deliver its material to the Savannah River Plant.
Myron Kratzer took me aside and pointed out that, in fact, I had prevailed on the AEC to change a policy and I had done so on behalf of a foreign client. He said that he had no objection to my doing so, but that I should register with the Department of Justice as a foreign agent which would permit me to operate within the letter of the law. That I did. And now I found myself in a position to increase the scope of services I was able to offer to my foreign clients.
For a number of years I had no competitors in arranging the transportation of nuclear materials with the exception of Trans-Nuclear in France, and they handled only French shipments. In the making of spent-fuel casks I had a monopoly, except for one or two that National Lead and Knapp Mills manufactured, and eventually they fell by the wayside.
I’ve always been fascinated by one thing. During the formative years of the nuclear business so many major companies entered the field only to quit by virtue of the huge financial losses they incurred. Sylvania, American Car and Foundry, Allis-Chalmers and so many more are gone today, while the Edlow name is an integral part of the nuclear trades, reaching into every corner of the international nuclear business. There were times when we had no money at all, but nobody knew. There were times when we were quite well-to-do, and nobody knew that either.
How did I manage to survive and prosper? Most of all I attribute the fact that we were successful to good fortune. There were other reasons, but it is good fortune which helped us turn the tide so many times, and for which we can be so thankful at this stage in our lives.
It is true that being independent helped because we could take decisions quickly, we could assume risks which major corporations might find it difficult to do, we could be nimble on our feet.
Some things we did deliberately in order to give us an image of our own. I became known for not consuming alcohol. I never drank. At the Atomic Industrial Forum and American Nuclear Society meetings, most companies had hospitality suites with free booze. Not the Edlows. We served coffee and doughnuts in the morning, and ice cream in the afternoon. There is something wholesome about ice cream, and unwholesome about alcohol. These things helped promote the image of integrity, the projection of which we regularly strived for. Where other business men wore suites, Sam Edlow wore sports coats. This worked to project our image of informality and independence.
One other, and very important, factor in our ability to succeed was our insistence on becoming expert in our own very narrow field, with the result that we really knew more than anyone else in this specialized area (in part because we helped lay down the rules in the first place). But, more than anything else we thank the Good Lord for the good fortune He bestowed on us for being in the right place at the right time, with enough good sense to capitalize on a golden opportunity.
Once having designed and built spent-fuel shipping casks as our exclusive specialty we still had more than the customers to worry about. We had to educate the state and local officials who might deal with a spent-fuel shipment, including the Coast Guard, state police, and county sheriffs. This meant teaching them the use of hazard labels – chemical, toxic, or radiological – that described accurately what dangers might occur if the load were accidentally spilled. Well, it all came together by the early 1960s and we really ran the market. It was sensational.
In the end, however, I stopped manufacturing spent-fuel casks because of a financial disaster. It all happened this way. In order to encourage utilities to build nuclear power plants, the AEC agreed to buy back the spent fuel – ostensibly for reprocessing to remove useable plutonium and uranium. This was a means of subsidizing the building of nuclear power plants because the AEC never expected to actually take possession of the fuel, but it required that each utility be able to ship its spent fuel if it had to. As a way to sell reactors (and fuel contracts) Westinghouse wanted to have a spent-fuel cask built so its customers – the utilities – could say that they had access to the means of returning the spent fuel if they had to. A cask on a rail car seemed the only way to go, and I accepted the Westinghouse order, a real challenge, for a 100-ton cask in February 1962. That’s the one that did me in.
In building a spent-fuel cask you have four considerations: First, shielding to protect against radiation from material in the cask. Second, a way to prevent the fuel from starting a fresh chain reaction. Third, a way to extract the heat that builds up naturally in the fuel. And fourth, structural integrity so the cask could withstand a crash. We took care of the heat by installing a water pump, and we devised a metal basket that would both prevent a nuclear chain reaction from starting, and provide a means for dissipating the heat. This involved working with a special alloy of boron and cooper for the first time in this application. We found that it was impossible to machine this particular alloy. A new method had to be developed to attain the finish desired, and the whole concept had to be re-thought. Before it was all over I ran out of money. Well, not quite. At the end of 1962 Frances and I found ourselves with $2 in our pocket.
From this experience I realized that manufacturing was not for me. I’m an entrepreneur, and a salesman. So with all the bills paid I gave the lead company to my employees and decided to concentrate on representing clients, arranging the transportation of nuclear materials, and supplying uranium. In order to earn some income I thought of driving a cab, but Frances suggested that with all my business trips to Europe I’d make a fine travel agent. And I did.
Meanwhile, I continued my nuclear shipping and trading business, Samuel Edlow – Traffic Management of Nuclear Material, from a small office in Columbus, and before long I had an efficient – but exhausting – routine. Every Sunday night I drove about eight hours to Washington, and checked into the Washingtonian Motel in suburban Gaithersburg, Maryland. On Monday, Tuesday, and sometimes Wednesday I called on the AEC in Germantown or on client’s downtown. Then I hopped in the car and drove back to Columbus, ready for work at the travel agency from Thursday to Saturday. It was a crazy, hectic time, but gradually I expanded my contacts and became an important player in the business.
All the while Frances encouraged me, and spent most of her time raising our two fine sons. Jack graduated from high school in 1967 and obtained his BBA in International Business at The George Washington University. Robert graduated from high school in 1969 and was awarded a four-year certificate for art study at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington.
In the late 1960’s Charles Lazarus, head of a department-store chain, offered me a handsome salary to set up travel agencies in all his stores. But my heart was in the nuclear business, and with encouragement from Frances I stuck it out – eventually spending so much more time in Washington than in Columbus that it seemed clear to me and to my clients the capital was the best place to do business. In June 1969, on the day after Robert graduated from high school, our family moved to Washington.
Beginning with a three-room office at 1100 17th Street NW, a secretary, and Jack as my assistant, I founded Edlow International Company (EIC) to offer a variety of brokering and transportation consulting and uranium-supply services to nuclear clients. The secret of our success was to start small and to grow conservatively, always financing expansion from profits, not from borrowing. And grow we did. By the time our office moved to larger quarters at 1815 H Street NW, EIC was the dominant shipper of nuclear material in the world. We expanded to 1666 Connecticut Avenue in 1988, again increasing our staff and our operations.
By being alert to new opportunities, and by remaining flexible, we were able to pioneer several impressive achievements in the nuclear business over the years. For example, we arranged for the first international commercial spent-fuel shipment. We arranged the first commercial heavy-water shipment. We arranged the first plutonium shipment to EURATOM, the European nuclear consortium. We arranged the first nuclear-material sale and shipment that required an executive order from the President of the United States – for the Tarapur reactor in India. We designed, built, and delivered the first commercial spent-fuel casks. We handled the first nuclear-component order for China. We arranged the first import license for natural uranium hexafluoride. And we obtained the first federal license to store natural and enriched uranium. All these accomplishments are really satisfying, and contributed to the growth of an entirely new international industry."
– from Reflections of a Lucky Man by Samuel Edlow, May 1991, (unpublished), with permission from the author.