June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
Coming on Line
From the beginning it was clear—in this case the beginning was December 2, 1942, the day the first man-made nuclear reactor was nudged to criticality in a squash court beneath the west stands of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field and incidentally the first day of wartime gasoline rationing—that the fissioning atom radiated heat energy and that such energy might, in the fullness of time, be applied to make electricity for power. Fifteen years would pass before nuclear electricity was generated in any quantity in the United States. That is rapid development or surprising delay, depending upon one’s perspective, but the fact is that despite its imposing technical lead in nuclear matters, the United States did not arrive first at the production of commercial nuclear power. Great Britain did. On a smaller scale, even the Soviet Union preceded us. The reasons are intriguing. How the United States contrived to back into the nuclear power business is instructive. “There are overtones in this development,” wrote the physicist and statesman J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1957, “that have been absent in power developments in other respects not wholly beyond comparison, such as the diesel engine and the gas turbine: overtones of pride and terror, of mystery and hope.” There are still such overtones today.
Enrico Fermi’s first “atomic pile,” literally a flattened spherical pile of graphite blocks plugged with cylinders of purified natural uranium, radiated heat equivalent to some two hundred watts of electricity, no more. The dark, dirty mechanism, its emergency quenching system three young men crouched on top the last layer of graphite, up under the ceiling, balancing buckets of cadmium solution, was designed to prove that a reactor would work, and it barely did—so barely that it required no cooling system and no shielding. It was simplicity itself. The graphite served as a sort of physical catalyst; the uranium did the work.
Uranium purified from ore consists of two isotopes—variant physical forms—in the proportions in which they are found today in nature: U 235, bomb material, an unstable substance continually undergoing radioactive decay, to the extent of seven parts per thousand; and U 238, stable “ordinary” uranium, the preponderant balance. U 235 atoms spontaneously eject neutrons from their nuclei as they decay; collisions with atoms of a suitable moderator can slow some of those neutrons sufficiently to allow other uranium atoms to capture them and, in so doing, to fission; in fissioning—splitting—some of the matter of the uranium is converted into energy in the awesome proportions of Einstein’s famous formula. The fissioning of one uranium atom, minuscule though it is, produces enough energy to make a grain of sand visibly jump.
It happens that the average number of neutrons emitted by a decaying atom of U 235 is slightly more than one. This happenstance suggested, to Fermi and his colleagues, that in a sufficiently “massive assembly of natural uranium and moderator, each decaying atom might fission at least one other atom, and some decaying atoms might fission two. The result then might be a “chain reaction” of fission events that would be self-sustaining and controllable. A control mechanism—rods of some neutron-absorbing material—might be raised out of the pile to allow the chain reaction to begin and to continue and be lowered into the pile to slow or stop it. In Chicago, in 1942, Fermi proved such speculations correct.
The goal of Fermi’s reactor work was not to produce energy. It was, immediately, to prove the chain reaction, and subsequently to devise a machine that could make bomb material. U 235 is excellent bomb material, but it is extremely difficult to separate from U 238 because the two isotopes are chemically identical. Theory indicated that a reactor could be used to transmute ordinary U 238 into an entirely new, man-made element that would also serve for bombs: plutonium. And plutonium, chemically different, might be efficiently separated chemically from its parent, uranium.
Theory proved, again, correct. Fermi’s modest Stagg Field pile was the immediate forerunner of the truly massive uranium-graphite reactors built at Hanf ord, Washington, in the midst of the Second World War, for the production of plutonium. The Hanford reactors radiated so much heat that they were cooled by diverting a considerable portion of the Columbia River through them, raising the river’s temperature by measurable degrees downstream. But they were no more designed for power production than was Fermi’s first pile. They wasted copious quantities of heat, but their temperature was inefficiently low. In power production, the greater the temperature differential, the greater the efficiency.
The peaceful atom got short shrift in wartime. Every effort of the secret Manhattan Project was bent to making bombs. Yet some took thought. In 1944, anticipating the end of the war, General Leslie R. Groves of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, the man who commanded the bomb building, convened a committee of experts chaired by Dean R. C. Tolman of the California Institute of Technology to assess the atom’s postwar prospects. The Tolman Committee thought atomic energy would lend itself to three areas of development: power, weapons, and scientific tools. It recommended to the War Department that the United States pursue atomic power “for the propulsion of naval vessels.” It was pessimistic about the prospects of commercial power. “The development of fission piles solely for the production of power for ordinary commercial use,” it found, “does not appear economically sound nor advisable from the point of view of preserving national resources.”
There matters stood until some years after the war—necessarily, given the times. The bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki came off the bottom of the bin. More were at least weeks away from fabrication and delivery. The Japanese understandably chose not to call our bluff. Immediately after the war, then, and into at least the early 1950’s, almost the entire U.S. production of uranium and plutonium was dedicated to weapons. In 1953 U.S. atomic energy facilities busy at weaponry consumed no less than 2.5 per cent of the total national electricity supply. Some of the urgency, not to say the hysteria, of those years around 1950, when the Soviet Union was testing atomic bombs and we were scrambling to build a thermonuclear weapon of any, even of inefficient, design, resulted from our sense of not having stockpiled enough. The “national resources” that the Tolman Committee sought to preserve were the bomb materials that a mere power reactor would burn. The balance of terror was hardly understood and had not yet been struck.
Evidence on this point is scarce but not lacking. Gordon Dean, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1950 to 1953, wrote suggestively in his 1953 book Report on the Atom , “As a result of this cold war [with the Soviet Union] and this armaments race, the American atomic energy program has been largely a weapons program carried on in secrecy and with the utmost urgency.” Comparable statements might be adduced. Most convincing is an event that led directly to the notorious 1954 Oppenheimer security investigation: that is, the 1949 recommendation by the AEC’s General Advisory Committee, of which Oppenheimer was then chairman, that the United States not proceed with H-bomb development, a recommendation President Harry S. Truman pointedly ignored. The General Advisory Committee, made up of eminent scientists, wasn’t pacifist and hadn’t gone daft. It simply understood that the inefficient H-bomb design then at hand would use up too much precious bomb material for its trigger—bomb material still in relatively short supply, bomb material that the committee believed could be put to better use diversifying the nation’s existing atomic arsenal.
As we were short of fissile materials in the years immediately after the Second World War, so were we short of facilities and personnel. Civilians at Chicago and Los Alamos and Oak Ridge, confined to their posts during the war, swarmed back to wherever they had come from, and it was all the lame-duck Manhattan Engineering District could do to hold its atomic energy operations together. Scientists especially left the quasi-military organization they had served at Los Alamos. Some of their pent-up resentment at its restrictions, and perhaps also some of their guilt, was channeled into the battle royal waging in Washington in the winter of 1945–46 over the issue of civilian versus military control of the atom.
The result of that battle was the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. That remarkable act made atomic energy in all its manifestations an absolute monopoly of the U.S. government. All discoveries concerning atomic energy were to be considered “born” secret—counted secret until formally declassified—and the penalty for divulging atomic secrets was life imprisonment or death. All fissile materials became the property of the U.S. government, as beached whales became the property of kings. No one might build or operate a reactor except under government contract, nor might such devices be privately owned. Authority over atomic energy was vested in a commission of civilians, the Atomic Energy Commission, responsible to the President —“the most totalitarian governmental commission in the history of the country,” one historian has called it. Proponents of the bill that became the Atomic Energy Act had argued that atomic energy was too important to be left in the hands of the military. It apparently was also too important to be conveyed into the hands of the public.
Some modest efforts toward designing a power reactor had begun at Oak Ridge in 1944. Dr. Farrington Daniels of the University of Wisconsin conceived of a high-temperature reactor assembled from natural uranium and graphite and cooled by either helium or liquid bismuth. Planning for a pilot model continued immediately after the war. The Daniels pile was never built, but it figured indirectly in the subsequent development of nuclear power. The Navy dispatched a hot-headed forty-five-year-old career officer to Oak Ridge to study it, and Captain Hyman George Rickover took up the reactor trade.
Technically more important was a curious research reactor built at Los Alamos in the winter of 1943–44. It consisted of uranium densely in solution with less than four gallons of ordinary water; the resulting “soup” was contained in a stainless-steel sphere some twelve inches in diameter. The uranium used in this “homogenous” reactor had been “enriched” by differential separation of its isotopes from .07 to 15 per cent U 235 (and in a later experiment, to 88 per cent). The enriched uranium was far more efficient for chain reaction than natural uranium—making the reactor far more compact—and enriched uranium would be thereafter the material of choice for U.S. reactors of every kind. Canada began building reactors of natural uranium and heavy water, Great Britain of natural uranium and graphite; the United States ultimately chose enriched uranium and “light”—ordinary—water, and in this way also, power initially would compete with weapons for the existing uranium supply.
If bombs had clear priority to supplies, it was also true that no one was much interested in nuclear power in the first years after the war except the Air Corps and the Navy. Nuclear power for aircraft (which fortunately never flew) or for naval vessels might be valuable at almost any price, but nuclear power for the commercial production of electricity simply wasn’t economical. No one knew yet precisely what such electricity might cost, but anyone in the power industry could see that it was likely to cost more than the four to eight mills per kilowatt hour (a mill is a tenth of a cent) that was typical of nonnuclear electricity in the Eastern United States.
Yet power enthusiasts in Congress grew restless. Cheap electricity from the atom (as they imagined it) was something they could send home. The Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, slowly becoming aware of its unusually broad mandate not only to propose legislation but also to monitor and control, met in extended hearings on the state of the atomic energy program in 1948 and wasn’t happy with what it found. “The Joint Committee believes,” it complained, “that reactor development should proceed with all possible speed, and disappointment therefore follows from the reflection that, in two and a half years [since the creation of the AEC], the Commission has not broken ground on a single new-type high-power reactor.”
The AEC took heed. Early in 1949 it established a Division of Reactor Development. It began carving out a National Reactor Testing Station from the barrens of Idaho. It authorized an experimental breeder reactor—a reactor that would “breed” more plutonium than it would burn uranium—to be built there, along with a materials-testing reactor to study the effects of radiation on the materials from which reactors might be built, a necessary step to large-scale power production. Most significantly, and out of character with these other experimental projects, it directed Westinghouse in Pittsburgh to begin work on a seagoing power reactor for submarines. The instigator of the Submarine Thermal Reactor project was Hyman Rickover, of course, operating out of his own hip pocket from a special-assistant position within the Navy’s cavernous Bureau of Ships. Busy making bombs, the AEC had wanted no immediate part of building nuclear submarines. Nine months of Rickover’s carefully orchestrated prodding moved the commission to relent.
If any single person has contributed more than any other to the uneasy nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union that passes for nuclear truce, that person is the American engineer and naval officer Hyman Rickover, because Rickover was largely responsible for the submarines that constitute our most invulnerable picket line of nuclear deterrence. Such is commonly known. Less commonly known is this: Rickover was also largely responsible for the founding technology of U.S. commercial nuclear power. He personally directed the building of the first nuclear submarines; he personally directed the building of the first large-scale civilian power reactor.
Rickover was born in Russia in 1900. His father was a tailor who emigrated with his family to the United States, to Chicago, in 1906. Young Rickover worked his way through high school as a Western Union messenger. A congressman arranged his appointment to Annapolis, from which he graduated in 1922. He served on a destroyer, then on a battleship. He took a master’s degree in electrical engineering at Columbia. He attended submarine school at the old age of twenty-nine and served on submarines. In 1937 he was awarded a coveted “Engineering Duty Only” billet within the Navy, a position that corresponds to appointment to the Army’s Corps of Engineers.
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 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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
Finally, and briefly, the private power industry understood that if it didn’t get its marching orders soon, government outfits like TVA would occupy the field. It pushed Congress that much harder.
Out of the Joint Committee hearings of summer 1953; out of the Eisenhower administration’s conviction that private enterprise could do the job, whatever the job might be, better than public authority; out of Eisenhower’s vision of nuclear swords melted into a pool of plowshares; out of yet more hearings, closed and open, in 1954, Congress forged a new Atomic Energy Act. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 allowed private industry to own and operate reactors (but not yet own fissile materials—that liberalization came later). It loosened the stranglehold of AEC security. To collect liberal support, it prohibited the AEC from subsidizing any private projects for purposes more commercial than research and development. Through various legal and technical arrangements, it encouraged private marketing activities abroad. A General Electric executive summarized the new act simply: by its provisions, he wrote, “The Government monopoly created by the 1946 Act was substantially broken.”
Waving a magic wand—a neutron source—over a transmitter in Denver, Colorado, where he was recovering from a heart attack, President Eisenhower activated an automatic bulldozer in Shippingport to turn the first dirt for the new power plant on Labor Day, September 6,1954. Excavation and building began in earnest the following spring. Work progressed smoothly. “We are able to do our work with few letters and no fuss,” Rickover told the Joint Committee. “There has never been a single letter written between the Commission and the Duquesne Light Company since the contract was signed with them. It has never been necessary. …” Rickover would arrive at the site from Washington in the evening or late on a Friday afternoon, to keep his managers worrying nights and weekends. “There was a motto down here,” Duquesne president Stanley Schaffer remembers, “that some of us who were the doers learned to hate—the Admiral’s motto, ‘Full Power in Fifty-Seven.’ ” Not everyone loved the admiral, but he got the job done.
It was no small task. The pressure vessel that would hold the reactor’s hot, radioactive core, thirty-three feet long and nine feet in diameter, half a foot thick, required two and a half years to fabricate. Westinghouse, Duquesne, the Navy, the AEC, and all their several contractors had to coordinate their efforts on and off the site. Uranium oxide would be used as a fuel in the PWR for the first time and had to be fabricated—it is essentially a ceramic—and clad. Zirconium would serve as cladding. Rickover’s group had stimulated a new industry to bring that exotic metal’s production up to the new nuclear industry’s demands. A byproduct of zirconium production was the excellent neutron absorber hafnium, and hafnium would serve for Shippingport’s control rods. Then there was the midget welder.
“In building an atomic plant you spend a lot of time just looking for weak and leaky joints,” the Westinghouse project manager for Shippingport told a Saturday Evening Post writer. “One day an X-ray revealed a defect inside a bend of fifteen-inch pipe. It was a hard place to get at. We considered dismantling the pipe, but that would have been costly as the devil in time and money. Then we learned of a firm in Georgia that hires out midget welders for just such jobs. They sent us one who was just thirty-nine inches tall, and he crawled into the pipe and made a good solid repair.” The plant needed solidity. Water would be pumped through the reactor core at 45,000 gallons per minute, water pressurized to 2,000 pounds per square inch. The core was a hybrid: 115 pounds of bomb-grade U 235 metal as “seed” in plates at the center, ($1,000,500 worth of U 235 at $8,700 per pound) and 12 tons of natural uranium oxide in rods blanketed around.
Rickover sounded testy toward the end, early in 1957, before the Joint Committee came out to Pittsburgh to take a look. “I think we have babied a lot of people in this country too long with the glamour of atomic energy,” he told the Congressmen, “and I think as soon as possible we have got to get down to do it like any other business. ” Someone made the mistake of asking him about the new, larger power reactors then being designed. They were supposed to be more efficient. Rickover sneered. “Any plant you haven’t built yet is always more efficient than the one you have built. This is obvious. They are all efficient when you haven’t done anything on them … in the talking stage. Then they are all efficient. They are all cheap. They are all easy to build, and none have any problems. ”
He was candid about Shippingport’s problems. Costs had increased by at least fifty per cent. People, he said, had the idea that reactors were “much further advanced than they are.” Their designers and builders lacked much of the necessary “basic technology.” The “reactor game” hung “on a much more slender thread than most people are aware. 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.”
Shortly Shippingport was completed, in good time by any standard less rigorous than Rickover’s. “A little over two and a half years,” recalls Stanley Schaffer, “by comparison with today, which may be twelve to fourteen years from the time of a plant’s inception. I think it moved very expeditiously.”
December 2, 1957, fifteen years to the day after Fermi first operated his Stagg Field pile, Shippingport went “cold” critical, meaning its operators ran the reactor for testing but not for power production. They cut in power on December 18 at 12:39 A.M. By 3:00 AM the plant was producing more electricity than the 8,000 kilowatts it consumed. By seven in the morning it was generating 12,100 kilowatts. It would generate 20,000 kilowatts by that night and 60,000 within a few days. Budgeted at $47,700,000, it cost $84,000,000. Another $36,000,000 went to reactor research and development. Shippingport electricity came to fifty-five to sixty mills per kilowatt hour, although the AEC sold it to Duquesne at eight mills, a figure that stood in for the equivalent charge Duquesne would have paid for conventional fuel. Democrats in Congress, reported The New York Times , “have been urging a government program for building atomic plants, ” and so the A EC’s announcement of Shippingport’s coming on line emphasized its service to domestic power, missing a chance to score a “psychological triumph” to offset “the Soviet satellite achievement.” Sputnik had achieved earth orbit October 5,1957, two months before. Shippingport was “the world’s first full-scale atomic electric plant devoted exclusively to peacetime uses,” the AEC announced. The qualified superlative exempted Great Britain’s 70,000-kilowatt power reactors at Calder Hall in Cumberland, England, the first in the world of any consequence, which made not only domestic electricity but also plutonium for British bombs.
The Shippingport reactor, custom-built without regard to cost, worked efficiently and well. It is still in operation today, having been converted in 1977 to an experimental light-water system that breeds yet another fissile isotope of uranium, U 233, from the common element thorium. It was never economical, nor was its pressurized-water design necessarily the best model for the U.S. reactor industry to follow in scaling up to the behemoth 1,000-megawatt power reactors of today. “Most experts would say that [pressurized light-water reactors] are not the reactors of the future,” Henry Smythe remarked in Foreign Affairs in 1956, but they have been.
The private power industry signed on reluctantly after Shippingport, shocked by its demonstration of cost overruns. Through 1959 the AEC had spent $585,600,000 to push nuclear power; industry, by contrast, had spent $82,000,000. The national demand fell short of the AEC’s early estimate of 900 Shippingports nationwide by the late 1960’s, but nuclear power today, under continued indirect government subsidy, accounts for some 12.8 per cent of electrical capacity nationwide, and we consider it anew as an alternative to oil and a supplement to coal.
Atomic energy was debated from the beginning; it continues to be debated, and the debate has grown bitter. We have not yet made any lasting peace with its powers. We have not yet found a way to live with it or without it. Robert Oppenheimer, habitually an ironist, once called atomic energy “a somewhat tarnished symbol.” It is in truth a sort of Moby Dick among us, drawing hope and terror to its vast blankness like wounding harpoons.