30 Nov Offner becomes first to celebrate 45 years
Carlsbad, New Mexico — For the record, Steve Offner did not arrive at EM’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant just after the salt layer solidified.
But he did arrive before any waste had been emplaced. When ventilation consisted of only a single series of fans. The WIPP family was so small, it was easy to know everyone else. And personal computers? They didn’t exist.
In October, Offner became the first employee to celebrate 45 years with the companies that have run WIPP for the Department of Energy, from Westinghouse through Amentum’s Nuclear Waste Partnership.
Offner is the computer services manager for NWP, overseeing the Waste Data System that manages and tracks the shipments of transuranic nuclear waste destinated for permanent emplacement at WIPP. The database can crunch the numbers on thousands of barrels of waste over the past 20 years, fulfilling information requests from employees, the media and regulatory agencies.
“I used to know a lot of people at the site, and in the early days, when there were only 200 or 300 of us, everybody knew everybody else. Now, the last 8 or 10 years, people look at me like I’m the new guy and I was working out there before they were born,” Offner said.
Armed with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Valparaiso University in Indiana, he started with Westinghouse in October 1975. Westinghouse constructed nuclear power plants, but also was building mini computers to collect data on power plant systems. Offner went to a Westinghouse school to learn about the new model P2500, a “mini” computer that was the size of a refrigerator.
He was sent to Japan to get experience working on a live system, then moved on to nuclear work in Florida, Pennsylvania and South Carolina before heading to the Comanche Peak Nuclear Station in Glen Rose, Texas as a senior engineer.
He and a coworker were wrapping up their contract at Comanche Peak when Westinghouse sent them “to this new place called WIPP” in October 1986 to interview for a potential new assignment. He accepted a job offer and started in January 1987.
Offner’s parents were missionaries in Japan – he spent most of his first 20 years there — so he and his fiancee headed to Asia before he started at WIPP. His father proclaimed there was no better time for them to tie the knot, so they were newlyweds when Offner started at WIPP.
His first job was to manage the software that would track the construction of TRUPACTs that Westinghouse was going to build to transport TRU waste.
But TRUPACTs wound up being changed from rectangular to cylindrical were outsourced, so Offner headed out to the site, located 26 miles east of Carlsbad, to troubleshoot the original Central Monitoring System that keeps tabs on thousands of systems including radiation monitoring, ventilation, fire control and others.
Gaining expertise with the CMS, he became WIPP’s first “Cog” (cognizant) engineer when WIPP invented the concept of having an engineering subject matter expert in each area. He later advanced to cognizant engineer manager.
One of his major contributions to the CMS project was to take an unused but old operating system obtained from Clinch River in Tennessee and make it work at WIPP.
“We started putting it together; because of my engineering and software background I became part of that project. As things progressed, that kind of became my baby,” Offner said.
The site itself was in its infancy, with only a handful of permanent structures and nothing paved. The day he interviewed in his three-piece suit, it had rained heavily.
“So I get to the site, and I was slogging around in my nice shoes and this caliche mud,” Offner recalled.
He also managed the computer help desk, though they didn’t have a network at the time – communication was by “Sneaker Net” – walking floppy disks back and forth between machines. The storage medium was moving head disks, platters that were 2 feet in diameter, and 8-inch floppies. Each platter held one, yes one, megabyte, so the pack of five platters in the machine held a whopping 5 megabytes.
“There was no high-res graphics, everything was character based graphics,” Offner said. “You had to be careful about the variable names you used, because they were stored in memory. Your philosophy today is you make the names as descriptive as possible. Back in those days, you tried to use only one or two characters to keep them as small as possible so you could fit more of them into memory for the program to run in the limited space available.”
Fast-forward to today, where there’s more computing horsepower in your phone than those early Westinghouse machines.
“When I think of how things were 30 or 40 years ago and how they are today, it’s a world of difference. But because the changes occurred incrementally, I don’t really notice it on a day to day basis,” Offner said. “Looking back, it’s almost a shock to think of where we were versus where we are today.”
He remembers the first IBM PCs that debuted in 1981. The engineers hated them.
“They had a huge footprint, there was no software for them. All they did was take up half your desk space,” Offner said. “Everyone just pushed them to the side and let them sit and gather dust because nobody wanted them, nobody knew what do with them. Anytime you wanted a document created, you wrote it out longhand and gave it to the secretary to type up.”
Offner and his wife, who passed away several years ago, produced a daughter who lives in Albuquerque. She has a master’s in clinical counseling, works with people with developmental disabilities, but also produces art for companies in Albuquerque. Her boyfriend is a mechanical engineer at Sandia Labs.
“She is a hybrid. I’m very left-brained, my wife was very right-brained, and so she got a little of both. She has a lot of computer ability, but she is very artistic.”
There’s been a multitude of changes lately at the WIPP site, but Offner admits he hasn’t seen them. He hasn’t been to the site in years, handling all the information remotely.
Offner said he doesn’t have a lot of future plans. Computers are his hobby as well as his vocation, and he’s a devout slayer of the New York Times crossword puzzle because, “the local ones didn’t offer any challenge.” He’s a fixture at Carlsbad restaurants, dining out each night of the week on a regular circuit, but the pandemic has severely crimped that social scene.
He’s seen workers rise through the ranks, including WIPP site manager and Chief Operating Office Mark Pearcy and NWP President Sean Dunagan.
“I knew Mark (Pearcy) and Sean (Dunagan) years before. Mark was working as a tech writer for his wife, Sheila. I was running queries for Sean for Sandia 20 years ago.”
The company names have changed. Steve Offner is still here.
“We’ve been through a lot of CEOs and presidents. Even that position changes a lot of times. We were Westinghouse, then we were Waste Isolation Division. We’ve been a dozen different companies. My little piece of the organization keeps getting moved around from corporation to corporation. But I’ve never changed companies, the company changes names around me.”