A Demonstration At Shippingport

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Duquesne already owned 271 acres of flatland beside the Ohio River at the village of Shippingport, thirty-eight miles northwest of Pittsburgh, near the Pennsylvania-Ohio border. The company bought 237 acres more, creating a relatively isolated site three-quarters of a square mile. It proposed to build the necessary structures for a nuclear power plant, to install a 100,000-kilowatt turbogenerator to produce electricity from reactor-heated steam, and to put up the equivalent in manpower and services of $5,000,000 toward the reactor’s cost. The $5,000,000, says Stanley Schaffer, Duquesne’s president today and the person responsible in the mid-1950’s for the Shippingport reactor test program, “was more or less equivalent to the cost of the boiler plant we would have had to buy if the power system had been conventional instead of nuclear.”

The AEC liked Duquesne’s bid. It liked Duquesne’s location in the same city as the Westinghouse facility where the reactor would be designed and built. It received ten bids. Duquesne’s was by far the best, and the AEC accepted it.

While Rickover, Westinghouse, and Duquesne began work on their demonstration project, the nation wrestled with its atomic power policies. Two lines of issue developed independently in the mid-1950’s; quickly enough, as issues do, they frayed together into a common plait. One was public versus private power. The other was the metaphysical yet strategically important question of the United States’s standing before the nations of the world.

We had bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the world was still horrified. Since then we had confined our atomic energy program, so far as most of the world could see, to cranking out thousands upon thousands of atomic bombs. The British, in the meantime, were well along toward a working power reactor fueled with natural uranium, the sort of machine that other, non-nuclear nations might buy or hope to build. The Soviets also had announced a power-reactor program. We looked, or feared we looked, like capitalist warmongers to foreign eyes.

Further, we wanted to shore up Western Europe, which already was beginning to feel the energy pinch, against any encroachments from the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. “A substantial American effort on behalf of nuclear power development in Western Europe makes sense,” wrote a contemporary scholar of international affairs, Klaus Knorr, “for this region is badly in need of more energy and of depending as little as possible on Arabian oil.” Yes, even then.

At the same time, American industry had learned enough about nuclear power to understand that, while it wouldn’t immediately be economical in the United States, it was probably already competitive with non-nuclear power in Western Europe and Japan. There was a lucrative foreign market opening; firms like Westinghouse and General Electric were eager to compete but they were forbidden to do so by the terms of the 1946 Atomic Energy Act.

Dwight Eisenhower proposed to regain the high ground. His administration meant to stop public power, nuclear and non-nuclear, in its tracks, and turn the matter of power generation over to business. More personally, Eisenhower the military man wanted to be known as a peacemaker. Responding to an invitation from United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, he left an important summit conference in Bermuda to address the United Nations General Assembly on December 8, 1953; his speech that day came to be known as “Atoms for Peace.”

Eisenhower being Eisenhower, “something of an artist in iron” as he once coyly translated his German name, he first told the General Assembly just how awesome was America’s nuclear supremacy, concluding meaningfully that “atomic weapons have virtually achieved conventional status within our armed services. ” He spoke with gloom of “two atomic colossi … doomed malevolently to eye each other indefinitely across a trembling world.” And then, white rabbits from a white hat, he proposed “to hasten the day when fear of the atom will begin to disappear from the minds of people” by participating in the creation of an International Atomic Energy Agency to which all nuclear nations would contribute stocks of “normal uranium and fissionable materials. ” That would be, he thought, a kind of disarmament without the necessity of on-site inspection. “A special purpose” of such an agency, he said, “would be to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.”

 
“There are a lot of things that can go wrong, and it requires eternal vigilance. All we have to have is one good accident in the United States and it might set the whole game back for a generation!”
 

“Atoms for Peace” caused a stir—any proposal to slow the breakneck arms race did in those days—but nothing very specific came of it. Henry DeWoIf Smyth, the American scientist and AEC commissioner, would note in Foreign Affairs in 1956 that “in the nearly three years that have elapsed since [Eisenhower’s] speech, its principles have been reaffirmed but it can hardly be said to have been put into effect.” “Atoms for Peace” did, however, encourage Congress, industry, and the press to consider nuclear power, and notably private nuclear power, as peaceful, patriotic, and benevolent.