Letter from the Editor: Portable Nuclear Reactors

The United States Army ran an innovative nuclear power program for more than 20 years. The men involved operated a series of small, nuclear heated generating plants in some of the world’s least hospitable environments. The story of what those diligent heros did has been all but lost.

Though the Army was the lead service in the small reactor program, it was actually a tri-service program that included participation by both the Navy and the Air Force. This issue of AEI is dedicated to that group of soldiers, airmen and seamen that proudly served in the Nuclear Reactor Group.

Army Nukes

I first heard about the existence of the Army nuclear power program from one of my Naval Academy roommates. Dan was an exchange cadet from West Point with some rather unique goals. Unlike most West Pointers, he was not all that interested in being an infantryman; he was more interested in cerebral exercise than physical labor.

He told me back in 1980 that he wished that the nuclear power program was still an option for West Point graduates, but that the program had been eliminated. Like a typical college student, I lost interest in hearing about a defunct project.

Earlier this year, I established contact with a man named Dave Gonier, who had been a technical specialist in the Army Engineer Reactor Group. He told me some fascinating stories and shared with me a newsletter that he publishes to try to keep the members of the group informed of reunions and other events typical of a group of retired servicemen and their wives that served together in remote stations.

Camp Century

Dave sent me a video made from an old Army film. It is an incredible story of the construction of a semi-permanent research base in Greenland. The base, known as Camp Century, was made from a series of trenches dug out of the ice and covered with corrugated sheets of metal similar to those used in Quonset Huts.

The magnitude of the project was impressive, but the most interesting part for me was the power source for this camp. The video showed how a complete reactor plant was prefabricated in the United States and then broken down into numbered pieces. The parts were packed into cartons and shipping containers for the trip to the distant base.

Once all the pieces arrived on station, it took the Army team less than a single Arctic summer to assemble the reactor, test it and begin making electricity, steam heat and fresh water. This project stands in stark contrast to the conventional wisdom that it takes a decade or more to build a nuclear power plant. Amazingly enough, loading the fuel for the reactor took only six hours, even while following a rather stringent operating procedure.

The nuclear power supply enabled the men stationed at Camp Century to have sufficient electricity for entertainment and cooking, hot and cold running water, and cozy warm bunks. These comforts were not mere luxuries; they allowed humans to endure extended assignments in an area where mere survival is often a challenge. Camp Century remained in operation from early 1960 until the summer of 1965.

Camp Century, Greenland was not the only outpost powered a small, transportable atomic plant. Other unusual locations included McCurdo Sound, Antarctica; Fort Greely, Alaska; Sundance, Wyoming; and the Panama Canal Zone.

Why No Follow Through?

This is becoming a frequently asked question here at AEI.

Unfortunately, the modular reactor program did not attract enough support to become self sustaining. Small power stations producing electricity in far off locations did not capture the public imagination like submarines or aircraft carriers. Because each reactor was a one of a kind machine built during an age when oil was cheap and readily available, there was little chance of them becoming economical enough to attract the attention of entrepreneurial developers.

The conventional wisdom of the age was that only huge reactors would achieve sufficient economy of scale to allow them to compete against fossil fuel generators. In hindsight, perhaps a better path would have been to develop the concept of modular reactors so they could be manufactured in the same manner as their diesel competitors, using factory production techniques to reduce unit cost.

Unlike people involved in polar research, however, most American decision makers of the early 1960s were unable to imagine a time or a place where oil could cost several dollars per gallon. Based on their limited experience, a gallon of fuel cost a quarter and could be obtained at one of four stations at the suburban corner.

There are other reasons why the Army itself did not pursue the modular power reactor program. Looking at the dates of completion of the reactors (see page 6) one finds that new projects essentially stopped in 1962-1963. This period was one where there was a substantial increase in the Army resources going to fight the Vietnam War. Non-weapons related research was often cut to pay for guns and butter.

It is also possible that other AEC programs fought for funds that had been going to the Army program. It would be in character for Admiral Rickover to have emphasized the accident at SL-1 as a means of convincing Congress that his program was more deserving.(See ANPP summary table for a brief description of the Sl-1 accident)

The existence of the modular reactor program is almost unknown. The goal of this issue of AEI is to increase the number of people who understand that reliable, simple to operate nuclear generators were demonstrated more than 30 years ago. They do not require any technological advances for the capability to be restored.

About Rod Adams