A Demonstration At Shippingport

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Late 1952: The AEC, under its chairman, Gordon Dean, begins a review of its nuclear power policies. It inserts proposals into the last, lame-duck Truman administration budget for an enriched-uranium, graphite, and sodium power reactor, for a land-based prototype of the Westinghouse aircraft-carrier PWR, and for a nuclearpowered aircraft.

January 20, 1953: Dwight D. Eisenhower is inaugurated the thirty-fourth President of the United States.

Early 1953: Eisenhower’s budget men cut the AEC’s Navy, Air Force, and civilian reactor proposals from their new, leaner Republican budget.

Early 1953: Stung, the AEC and the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy double-team the House Appropriations Committee to restore some sort of nuclear power project. Congress allows the AEC to spend up to $7,000,000 of previously appropriated funds on what it takes to be the nation’s best immediate shot: a land-based version of Westinghouse’s aircraft-carrier PWR. Rickover takes the helm.

June–July, 1953: the JCAE conducts a series of hearings into “atomic energy for peacetime power.” The AEC’s policy statement is ready. It proposes “that now is the time to announce a positive policy designed to recognize the development of economic nuclear power as a national objective … to promote and encourage free competition and private investment. … It would be a major setback to the position of this country in the world to allow its present leadership in nuclear power development to pass out of its hands.” Public versus private power is debated at length during the hearings—by now, U.S. taxpayers have invested some $12 billion in atomic energy for peace and war—conservatives insisting on private ownership, liberals looking to protect the public investment. “Though the profits will be drained off,” The New Republic worries in an editorial contemporary with the hearings, “the taxpayers will continue to pay the costs and bear the risks.”

October 22, 1953: The Atomic Energy Commission announces that an AEC-owned demonstration power plant of 60,000 kilowatts will be built at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, jointly by Westinghouse Electric Corporation and Pittsburgh’s Duquesne Light Company under the direction of Rickover’s Naval Reactor Group, the latter wearing its reversible AEC hat.

Westinghouse’s participation in the PWR demonstration project is self-evident; the participation of a medium-sized private utility, Duquesne Light, needs explanation. Duquesne’s surprising reason for bidding emphasizes the very different national attitude toward nuclear power twenty-five years ago and parallels arguments that are forthcoming again today as the nation reconsiders expanding the use of coal.

Philip A. Fleger was chairman of Duquesne’s board of directors in 1953. Now retired, he remembers the Shippingport project well. The basic reason Duquesne went nuclear, he says, was pollution control.

Pittsburgh, once the “Smoky City,” had begun urban redevelopment in the late 1940’s, instituting strict smoke control. By the time the AEC solicited bids from private industry for the PWR project, sulfur oxide controls were also in the offing in the Pittsburgh area, well ahead of the rest of the nation. Duquesne was petitioning to build a coal-fired power plant on the Allegheny River, and citizens of the area were resisting. “We encountered a great deal of harassment and delay from objectors,” Fleger told me recently. “It began to look as if we wouldn’t be able to complete the plant in time to meet the power demands we were facing.”

The Atomic Energy Commission’s PWR project came along and it looked like a godsend: no expensive precipitators for smoke control, no expensive scrubbers for sulfur oxide control, 60,000 kilowatts of peak-load power, and a leg up on nuclear power technology. Nuclear power was conceived then, as it is being touted again today, as power without pollution. It pollutes, of course, but the pollution takes the form of radioactive waste, which, unless there is an accident, does not escape into the air.

The economics of the PWR project also looked promising. “Very early on,” Fleger remembers, “we set up some lectures on atomic energy. When the AEC invited bids, we were very much interested and quite well aware of the possibilities. The AEC specified that the bidder should indicate what it was prepared to do in, one, providing a site, two, providing the conventional portion of the plant, and three, making some financial contribution to the building of the nuclear portion of the plant. I remember this so well: we saw that this would probably offer the only opportunity an electric utility company would have to bid on a nuclear power plant on a closed-end basis. I realized that at this stage of the art it would be very difficult for any company to foresee the ultimate cost of the project. But here we could negotiate a contract and know there’d be a ceiling on cost.”