A Demonstration At Shippingport

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As an EDO, Rickover advanced rapidly in responsibility. In 1939 he was assigned to head a small technical branch within the Bureau of Ships, the Electrical Section, which was responsible for improving the design of the Navy’s shipboard electrical equipment. He consolidated and simplified and strengthened and renewed. Out of channels he put into production a $12,000,000 electrical mine-sweeping system that the Navy only later discovered it needed. He supervised the development of sonar. More conventionally talented engineers who worked with him said that he often gave the wrong reasons for doing what he did but that his technical instincts were almost infallible. He reorganized the Navy’s main supply depot in wartime, reducing the turnaround time for parts orders from months to days. At the end of the war he oversaw the mothballing of the Pacific fleet. And then, after the war, when the invitation to participate in the development of the Daniels pile came from Oak Ridge, he convinced his superiors to send him, and he went. He learned quickly. He was ever single-minded. He saw that the Daniels pile would be too large to fit into the hull of a submarine and lost interest in it forthwith. He went back to Washington in the summer of 1947 and set to work prodding the Navy and the AEC.

Westinghouse initially was awarded $830,000 to begin designing the reactor system for a nuclear submarine. The immediate question that faced the designers was what kind of reactor they should build. One of Rickover’s assistants, Lieutenant Commander Louis H. Roddis, proposed a system he had first read about a year earlier in a report by physicist Alvin M. Weinberg. Weinberg, writes a Rickover biographer, “had based his report in part on experiments and in part on conversations with Enrico Fermi.…”By 1949 AEC scientists had studied a number of different reactor configurations: cores of natural uranium, enriched uranium, plutonium, in metallic form, in oxide form, in solution; moderators of graphite, heavy water, light water, paraffin; unmoderated reactors; coolant systems using water, air, helium, carbon dioxide, liquid sodium, and oil.

The reactor Roddis proposed would consist of plates of highly enriched uranium moderated by light water—the same materials (the uranium in different form) as those used in the Los Alamos homogenous reactor of 1944. The water would serve not only as a moderator but also as a coolant and a heat-transfer medium. It would circulate among the plates of enriched uranium and then through a heat exchanger. A separate water system, also circulating through the heat exchanger, would serve to make steam. The reactor water would be pressurized. Under pressure, it could be heated to efficient, high temperatures—500 degrees Fahrenheit or more—without boiling away. Control rods would dampen the reaction. The complete mechanism would be compact enough to fit into the hull of a new submarine much larger than the diesel submarines of the war. The reactor would require no oxygen to operate; and with an oxygen generator for the crew, the submarine would be able to cruise the oceans of the world for months, completely submerged and without refueling.

The pressurized water reactor worked, as we know. In August, 1951, the Navy let a contract to the Electric Boat Company of Groton, Connecticut, for construction of a nuclear-powered submarine. On June 14, 1952, Harry Truman began the laying of the keel, noting that “widespread use of atomic power is still years away” and remarking on the “paradox that most of our progress toward the peaceful application of atomic energy has come under the pressure of military necessity.” On January 21, 1954, Mamie Eisenhower launched the nuclear-powered Nautilus with a bottle of champagne. Rick over, now an admiral after a nasty battle with the conservative admirals of the Navy’s selection boards, was already busy elsewhere. The first, demonstration-scale civilian nuclear power station was abuilding. “The Navy’s project is the basis of the country’s infant atomic industry,” said a congressman fighting the Navy for Rickover’s promotion. “When civilian power comes, it will be a by-product of the Navy’s work.”

 
“The Navy’s project is the basis of the country’s infant atomic industry. When civilian power comes, it will be a by-product of the Navy’s work.”
 

The events and decisions that led to the commissioning of America’s first large-scale civilian power reactor were complicated. A chronology clarifies:

June, 1950: Charles Thomas, president of Monsanto, writes the AEC: “It is proposed that American industry design, construct and operate one or more atomic power plants with its own capital.…” Similar proposals follow from other firms—utilities and wouldbe reactor manufacturers—during the year.

January, 1951: The AEC issues a general invitation to industry to conduct design studies.

April, 1952: Following the recommendation of its Industrial Advisory Group, the AEC invites industry to a second round of studies. Thirty companies ultimately participate at their own expense. During the same month, the AEC authorizes Westinghouse, Rickover’s prime reactor contractor, to begin designing a new, larger pressurized water reactor (PWR) for the nuclear propulsion of aircraft carriers.