Camp Century – Nuclear plant designed, manufactured, constructed & tested in less than 2 years

Under current rules and assumptions, anyone who claims that they can design and build a power-producing nuclear reactor in less than 10-15 years is considered to be naive or hopelessly unrealistic. However, there is no reason to believe that everyone with the technical capacity for completing the task will follow the same rules. Even in the United States, there was a time in which nuclear technology development moved much more quickly.

One of my favorite documented examples is the US Army’s reactor project designated as PM-2A, which was assigned the task of providing electricity and heat to a remote base in Greenland. The design contract was awarded on January 23, 1959. The power plant started supplying heat and electricity to the base, Camp Century, on November 12, 1960, only 22 months later. Here are extracts from an Army-produced status report video that describes several stages of the project, including site preparation, delivering, assembling and starting up the reactor power plant.

Knowing what is technically possible, why would anyone assume that all potential economic competitors would agree to adhere to the same constricting rules that the “powers that be” have devised here in the US?

If the game is rigged to be a no-win situation, the most productive response is to change the rules. For some odd reason, far too many people consider that course of action to be cheating. I think it is simply a creative way out of an externally imposed box with no exit. Star Trek fans that remember the Kobayashi Maru test understand what I mean.

About Rod Adams

48 Responses to “Camp Century – Nuclear plant designed, manufactured, constructed & tested in less than 2 years”

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  1. Atomikrabbit says:

    Another good reminder of what we used to be capable of doing, not just technically, but politically. Those are some pretty and compact new fuel assemblies shown (93% HEU). American Locomotive Company was the manufacturer.

    I used to know a guy who was an Army RP on the MH-1A in Panama.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MH-1A

  2. Engineer-Poet says:

    The whole “no win” scenario of trying to eliminate poverty while also gettting the atmosphere’s level of CO2 down to normal again and holding to “No Nukes” is getting people to think outside the box.

    France is a good example of this.  When the oil price shocks made oil-fired electricity unaffordable, France nuclearized its grid in a decade.  “No coal, no oil, no gas, no choice”.  When the false choice of “renewables” is finally understood by the public, we’ll build nukes again.

    • Daniel says:

      And now for those who wonder if nuclear will perdure in France, well put this under your hat:

      Despite having the biggest shale gas reserves in Europe, France will not go ahead with fracking.

    • Joris van Dorp says:

      That is why anti-nukes are doing everything they can to keep the public from understanding. In order to do that, they have no problem promoting:

      Contradictions: Stressing that “wind and solar are abundantly available” and then maintaining that “energy conservation is crucial”

      False dilemma’s: “Increasing nuclear power would prevent solar and wind from obtaining market share”

      Spurious logic: “Nuclear energy has a negative learning curve”

      Begging the question: “Nuclear energy is unpopular, so we need a new energy market system that can accommodate wind and solar in order to get off fossil fuels”

      Anyone who has the misfortune of coming to believe that anti-nuclearism is ‘good’ and who therefore tries to study the dogma of anti-nuclearism will suffer hits to his intelligence, as he/she tries to internalize the faulty logic the underpins anti-nuclear dogma. Thusly, anti-nuclearism is self-perpetuating because it’s adherents learn to live with – and to thrive – within a worldview that discounts normal rational thinking. In my work, I have had multiple anti-nukes tell me independently such daft things as ‘good arguments don’t always form the basis of good decision’ and that ‘feelings are as important, or more important, than facts’. And this is coming from people with MSc’s and even PhD’s in their title. In my opinion, anti-nukery causes damage to the intelligence and thereby solidifies its presence within a host.

    • Jeff Walther says:

      Unfortunately, I see a future in which the antis continue to lie and the public believes it. In other words, we never reach the point at which “the false choice of “renewables” is finally understood by the public”.

      As prices rise and reliability in the USA comes to resemble a third world nation, the unreliables crowd will just claim that the problem is too little unreliables and that we need more smart grid. They’ll ride this bomb all the way to the USA’s destruction.

      No one with money, media access, or power has a (short term) motivation to change the outcome.

      • Smilin Joe Fission says:

        Seem’s quite similar to the current spending argument of most in congress and the White House.

      • Engineer-Poet says:

        We need more nukes and more smart grid.  Smart grid can use all sorts of useful-but-not-time-critical things as dump loads to keep the nukes fully loaded and provide “spinning reserve” via instantly-sheddable load.  Those loads let nukes grow well beyond the minimum base load.

  3. CW says:

    “During the reactors operational life, a total of 47,078 gallons of radioactive liquid waste was discharged into the icecap.”

    If the goal is to convince a wary public that the nuclear industry can achieve these kinds of timelines without shortcuts, using a 60-year-old Hanford-era project as an example may be counterproductive.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @CW:

      I suspect that the “radioactive” liquid waste discharged was essentially pure water with a very tiny amount of activation from circulating through the primary system and being exposed to a neutron flux.

      If the fracking industry was to describe the material, they would call it 99.999% water. Here is how one industry advocate describes fracking fluid:

      Water accounts for about 90 percent of the fracturing mixture and sand accounts for about 9.5 percent. Chemicals account for the remaining one half of one percent of the mixture.

      http://www.energyfromshale.org/hydraulic-fracturing/hydraulic-fracturing-fluid#sthash.YywYN5PK.dpuf

      Rod

    • Atomikrabbit says:

      I wouldn’t be surprised if that amount of “radioactive liquid waste” was excreted (harmlessly) on an hourly basis into sewer systems worldwide by the millions of humans undergoing radioisotope therapy or diagnostics.

      Without a breakdown of isotopic identity and concentration, that term is meaningless unless intended as a trigger for reflexive radiophobia.

      But, yes, if the scientists and engineers are allowed to do their design work without undue interference from lawyers and politicians, we can now do much better.

  4. Reese says:

    Thanks for the Kobayashi Maru reference. I loved how in the “reboot” they bridged that backwards (or forwards depending on your perspective) to the Kirstie Alley movie of 1982.

    • BobinPgh says:

      You have to admit though, with Star Trek II the Wrath of Khan, it was Ricardo Montalban as Khan who really made that movie and brought back the Star Trek franchise. ST The Motion Picture was such a bore.

  5. Daniel says:

    A variation on the Kobayashi Maru reference. You can go and play the game in another galaxy !

    Soon the NRC will only be viewed as an international bureaucratic incompetent nuisance and the world will do without its design certification for SMRs.

    Already I think that Canada and the UK have approved designs not yet cleared by the NRC.

    For SMR, Russia has strong ties with a lot of nations that aspire to join the nuclear community. Nations that the US has very little leverage upon. Design certification for SMR will become market acceptance.

    Like Rod said, we are building SMRs since 1959. Enough is enough… Let roll the solutions out. The stuff has already been certified.

  6. Ian Cooper says:

    Yes, and nuclear power is just the sort of thing we want to change the rules for and hurry along, because seriously, what could ever go wrong? Am I right?

    Now I’m wondering if there are parts of Greenland that glow.

    • Engineer-Poet says:

      I’m sure the entire icecap glows from muon and neutrino interactions.  Camp Century has nothing to do with it.

    • Daniel says:

      In french we call those ‘aurores boréales’

  7. R. L. Hails Sr.. P. E. says:

    This once happened, but is no longer possible in America. For some bizarre reason, the debate about nuclear power, in our nation, seems stuck on 1970 arguments. But that world no longer exists.

    To manufacture a large scale nuclear vessel, you must have the capability of forging, and welding one foot thick plates of extremely quality steel, and moving 1,000 ton objects to heat treatment facilities and construction sites. The plants are oft times located in hilly terrain, so the siting decision for a plant, hinges on whether we can get it there in one piece, or make it there.

    The Peach Bottom Reactor was built in place, cooked in place, and ran in place. But that was in the early 1970s. The highly skilled people who made it work are dead, and no one has gone through extremely intense decades long training to replace them. The fab shops were sold off, moved off shore, and all we have are rusting anchor bolts.

    We could resurrect the Confederate army easier than attract highly intelligent workers back into a non existent, dead, career. America lacks two generation of skilled talent which was very rare in the boom times.

    It might be possible to make a nuclear vessel in two years but it would be located in a nation with a fundamentally different Congress, a legal system which stops endless litigation, a regulatory system which is not rewarded for do nothing, and colleges which taught coursework which was dropped decades ago in the US. The Chinese are doing it, but they produce far more engineers than we do. America is the land of talking heads,

    No way.

    • Engineer-Poet says:

      Canada always lacked the capability to build foot-thick steel reactor vessels.

      They produced their own home-grown nuclear plant family in spite of that.  There is more than one way to skin that particular cat.  Molten salt reactors, liquid-metal cooled reactors and pebble beds are other possibilities which sidestep the problem of large forgings.

      • R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. says:

        Yes and no.

        None of the Canadian technologies would be licensed by the NRC in one life time. And who, today, would bet their career after twenty years of grad school and practice on that slim possibility? Better to work for Goggle, or program put and call code. They will meet many colleagues, nearing retirement, in the watering holes, who once worked on BWRs, or PWRs. then were laid off and started over.

        Our problem is not the pros or cons of differing technologies, or even massive metal bending machines. Our survival problem is two lost generations of talent. The US government killed civilian nuclear power. The professors are in the ground. The government can pour money on a project, but they can not staff it with non existent expertise. I know of no nation who killed off an advanced technology which, once abandoned for forty years, was successfully reconstituted. Two current examples might be Crystal River (dummies split the containment) or SONGS (dummies screwed up flow induced vibration in the steam generator tubes).

        We do not live in 1970, and the skinned cat began to stink a long time ago.

        • Jeff Walther says:

          While I agree that the USA has taken a wrong and disturbing turn, I do not agree that it would be so difficult to resurrect our expertise in technology.

          The argument that no one else has resurrected an abandoned technology is not dispositive. Even if it’s true, we’ve only been really going with technology for about 200 years. That’s barely time for much in the way of 40 or 50 year abandonments and reuptakes. Plus, it would be rare because most technologies are no longer relevant for reuptake after 40 years.

          However, my actual reason for optimism is many fold. We did not take long to train a huge cadre of aerospace engineers when they were needed — and then abandoned them with the space program….

          We still have substantial nuclear expertise in the navy and the contractors who build the nuclear powered ships. Even if academia is getting a bit threadbare in the nuclear department, naval resources represent a pool of expertise which can be nurtured and grown.

          The bigger problem is simply that there’s not much reason to grow such expertise, yet. I hope that changes, but I don’t know how to make it happen.

          I do find the revelations here a few weeks ago extremely troubling. One of the policy types from the Vermont School of Law stopped by and if you read between the lines, he basically said that he gets paid to publish any opinion that he’s paid to publish. The justifications/evidence in his paper need not meet any criteria for truth, ethics, reliability or thoroughness. And his papers will be relied upon by policy makers and taken up for dissemination by the media. BTW, he absolves himself of all guilt for the way others take up and use his ill-founded publications.

          When did the USA start basing important infrastructure policy decisions on the delusions of barely educated “policy” wonks, instead of professional engineers? Why are the opinions of people who have no technical education, little ability to do simple math, no economics education, and no conviction that their work should live up to high standards used to set public policy and given air on the mass media?

          Does the public really believe that “anybody can do it.”

          Have we made great works of engineering look so easy, that the public now holds the workers in contempt and no longer understands the sweat, dedication and expertise needed to create such works? And that dedication starts all the way back in a person’s youth, when he or she chooses a profession that requires long hours of dedicated study during college years, rather than long hours of dedicated partying.

          How did public opinion get here?

          Maybe we need more than a publicity campaign by the nuclear industry. Perhaps we need a publicity campaign by all walks of professional engineer to help the public understand that our leaders should not be taking their guidance from paid advocates who aren’t competent to have an intelligent opinion on questions of engineering and infrastructure.

          I’m not saying engineers should rule the world. But if a politician wants a road or an energy source built, he ought to get opinions from several engineers, not from policy wonks with fancy titles from professional shill houses.

        • Rod Adams says:

          @R. L. Halls Sr. P. E.

          I do not share your pessimism, though I recognize that you are not far from the truth.

          We did maintain a cadre of skilled talent in the US, with perhaps enough seed corn to reconstitute a vibrant industrial base if we start soon.

          Remember, we have managed to maintain and operate 104 commercial nuclear power plants and to build one or two small reactors per year to power ships and submarines.

          We might not be able to accomplish the task of building giant PWRs any more than we could build Saturn V rockets, but we have some useful skills that can be brought to bear in smaller reactors.

          The Camp Century plant was tiny, even compared to Peach Bottom I; it only generated a couple of megawatts.

          • R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. says:

            For over forty years, I engineered a score of nukes, two score of fossil fuel power plants, an number of prototypes (e.g. 1st US ISFSI) and spent decades assessing advanced technologies (what is coming, how much, when, what are the technical barriers), e.g ultracapcitors, silicon carbide switching, and superconductivity. I would note that no US Navy reactor could be licensed by the NRC since the Admiral was the top dog in both houses. If the NRC overviewed NASA, there would be no American footprint on the moon. And, while operating utilities have superb technical staffs, few or none have expertise in seismiscity, geology, hydrology, tsunami, tornadoes, prestressed containment, or advanced radiation analyses in civilian nukes.

            The small reactor movement mimics the combustion turbine success of two decades ago. It’s prime advantage is that it can be manufactured, installed and fired up while the same regulator sits in the same chair. The small reactor has little to do with the supply need; it is a costly answer to “What can we do, in the real world?” Yes we have useful skills, but we also have great gaps, long term gaps, in perhaps the most complex interrelated technology ever devised.

            EXAMPLE: What electrical physical expert at Fukushima, (a 1960s design) worked closely with Safe Shutdown system engineers and their tsunami hydrodynamicist, through the decades when plate tectonics revolutionized geotechnology? TEPCO was told the old flood design basis was not conservative, along a coast historically noted for the largest tsunamis on earth. Who put the emergency electrical gear in the basement? Basements flood. How does an inland set of CTs, on a hill, redundantly wired and switched to the ECCS, sound today? In power, the knowledge you lack, may kill you.

            As Jeff Walter notes, there are cultural fissures in our legal, regulatory, even societal comprehension of the role of engineering. Who decides on technical risk, vs. investment costs, at Yucca Mountain? Power engineering once attracted the best technical minds in our society. Today they work in Silicon Valley or Wall Street. In a broader view, the Professional Societies have ranked US infrastructure as grossly deficient for two generations. There are long term consequences to these national degradations; they will not be rectified quickly. The longest lead time is constrained by experienced expert minds.

            This is our problem.

        • Engineer-Poet says:

          Our problem is not the pros or cons of differing technologies, or even massive metal bending machines. Our survival problem is two lost generations of talent.

          The USA went from the first artificial chain reaction in December 1942 to the first commercial nuclear powerplant exactly 15 years later.  We have crews maintaining, operating and refurbishing PWRs to this day.  There’s plenty of current expertise in HWRs north of the border.  We should be able to get over the TECHNICAL hurdles in 1/5 the time, at most.

          None of the Canadian technologies would be licensed by the NRC in one life time.

          You were talking about industrial deficiencies, but now you’ve switched to administrative blockade.  That’s a completely different problem, and can be literally abolished with a stroke of the pen.

          • R. L. Hails Sr.. P. E. says:

            This history is key. President Eisenhower held the pen, and prophesied that man must learn to use the atom for peace, or it will annihilate us. He “invented”, ordered the containment. The Admiral “invented” the light water reactor, for subs, for H bombs, then for electricity. Since then an administrative iron curtain has descended on nuclear energy, on pebble bed, thorium, fast breeder, High Temp Gas, a host of technical topics which demand smart folks to solve problems. But that curtain can not, did not, stop time: college training, work experience, and hard earned knowledge.

            The US has wasted two generations, as our competitors (e.g. France, or China) moved on. They, and others, have robust centers of excellence, and are accomplishing feats which we never achieved, e.g. quick construction milestones of massive generators. French operators can go from one unit, retrain for hours and work another. That takes years in the US. The US probably can not build two new big ones, without screw ups; we will learn in Georgia and South Carolina. Why? Everyone on those projects has never done one that worked.

            The stroke of the pen, the blockage, is our lethal problem. We no longer lead in atomic energy. Why? Congress and regulators hold the pen, have held it since the AEC was split up. Our technical people have been tied up by red tape, could not contribute, for generations. Our experts lie in graves. My point: it is no longer 1970 and that has dire consequences.

  8. Daniel says:

    What we need for the US out of this mess is a predictable federal regulator that can issue licences in a timely manner like the Gov of Georgia would say.

    I think we do have that. 30 years between licences. That’s predictable all right.

  9. Robert Steinhaus says:

    Rapid Reactor Prototyping – LANL DUFF Space Reactor built in 2012

    An example of what can still be done in nuclear reactor innovation is the DUFF space reactor that was conceived, designed, and hardware prototyped in the span of 6 months for a total project cost of less than $1 million dollars at Los Alamos National Lab in 2012 (within this last year). The DUFF space reactor demonstrated the advantages and strengths of cost effectively developing new reactor prototypes using the technical and regulatory advantages of a DOE National Lab.

    The Duff Space Reactor project is a proof of concept design, an example of an operating practical reactor prototype such as was much more common in the first two decades of the nuclear age. DUFF is not flight qualified nuclear technology, to my best knowledge, only the SNAP-10A reactor developed by NASA in the 1960s has a flight rating to be sent into space. DUFF showcased new technology – no one has ever built a space reactor that included the features incorporated in DUFF – a very small and light reactor with heat pipe energy transfer from the core and Stirling engine-electrical generator technology for power conversion. This is new (and to my best knowledge has not been done before this way on planet earth or anyplace else that we have any reliable knowledge of).

    Duff was built with the help of a prototyping critical assembly originally engineered and built at LANL called Flat-Top [2]. Use of the Flat-Top critical assembly, with a well known highly characterized configuration, insured that the prototype DUFF could be safely assembled, rapidly and with very modest budget. This is the smart way to innovate new reactors that permits rapid safe progress. Similarly, the heat pipe and Stirling engine-generator were commercial, near off the shelf – this is also the smart way to safely and rapidly build something new that works and to provide the tax-payer with a deliverable instead of a few computer simulations and a conference paper for their investment.

    America did not somehow get cheated by using an engineering prototyping critical assembly and near off the shelf heat transfer and power conversion components. This is the right way to safely go about rapid low cost reactor prototyping.

    In the private nuclear startup environment, there is no Flat-Top critical assembly that can be quickly brought into play to do a safe confirmation of calculations and modeling to verify a new design. It takes time, talent, and decades of consistent support to devise this design and prototyping infrastructure, and currently it exists only in the DOE National Lab Universe.
    Small private nuclear startups may have great ideas (not something to be discounted or slighted) but typically do not have the funding or resources to develop fundamentally new nuclear technology in less than decades. To really design and build reactors takes a team. ORNL design great Dr. Ed Bettis, who designed the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) reactor, could not have built the MSRE by himself but had to depend on ~120 other full time ORNL chemists, engineers, and technicians along with about 50 tradespersons and contractors to help him build it and make the reactor a reality. The infrastructure and the people needed to quickly and safely prototype new nuclear technology still exists within the DOE National Lab system. Sure, with a huge infusion of capital and a decade+ of additional time this DOE LAB nuclear infrastructure could be duplicated and a similarly balanced, seasoned, and capable team of designers, engineers, and fabricators could be assembled out in private industry; but if you want to beat the industrial competition and introduce innovative new nuclear first, why do that?

    While many knowledgeable persons doubt government and its effectiveness in developing new energy, DUFF is a recent example that innovation in the DOE National Lab environment is still possible. The sad truth is that there is not a single historical example of a fundamentally new nuclear reactor design that was designed and prototyped without government help and funding since the dawn of the atomic age.

    *** THERE IS NOT ONE SINGLE SUCCESSFUL EXAMPLE OF PURELY PRIVATE SECTOR REACTOR DEVELOPMENT LEADING TO A SUCCESSFUL OPERATING PHYSICAL NUCLEAR REACTOR IN HISTORY***

    It is certainly possible to aspire to do things that have never been successfully done, and develop new reactors in the private sector totally with private funding but those that undertake such endeavors should realize that the odds against them are long and there are no historical examples of success.

    Why not use the considerable expertise still existing in the DOE National Labs to rapidly complete new fission reactor prototypes and capture innovative new nuclear technology for application in the United States and in so doing beat the industrial competition in Asia (China)?
    [1] – LANL DUFF Space Reactor – https://www.lanl.gov/newsroom/news-releases/2012/November/11.26-space-travel.php
    [2] – Description of Flat-Top Critical Assembly used to prototype DUFF Space Reactor – http://www.osti.gov/bridge/servlets/purl/6463833-PO5QS4/6463833.pdf

    Disclosure – I worked for the Lawrence Livermore National Lab as a tiny little guy in nuclear field test.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Robert Steinhaus

      Thank you for reminding us about DUFF.

      I’m not sure you are correct with the following statement:

      *** THERE IS NOT ONE SINGLE SUCCESSFUL EXAMPLE OF PURELY PRIVATE SECTOR REACTOR DEVELOPMENT LEADING TO A SUCCESSFUL OPERATING PHYSICAL NUCLEAR REACTOR IN HISTORY***

      Here is a quote from Wikipedia about GE’s Vallecitos demonstration plant:

      The Vallecitos boiling water reactor (VBWR) was the first privately owned and operated nuclear power plant to deliver significant quantities of electricity to a public utility grid. During the period October 1957 to December 1963, it delivered approximately 40,000 megawatt-hours of electricity. This reactor – a light-water moderated and cooled, enriched uranium reactor using stainless steel-clad, plate-type fuel – was a pilot plant and test bed for fuel, core components, controls, and personnel training for the Dresden Nuclear Power Plant, a Commonwealth Edison station built in Illinois five years later.

      In addition, though the national labs have a head start in some areas, there is nothing except human written rules that would prevent similar facilities and skilled teams from being developed by private industry. There is plenty of available capital; one thing that prevents it from being deployed in this field of endeavor is the incredible burden of having to obtain government approval for every step of the process of innovation. That has been the rule since the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (and continued with all other iterations), but that law is only a rule agreed to by elected officials influenced by people who claim that there are special hazards associated with radiation that are so different from the hazards associated with other industrial fields of endeavor that the government must have special means of control.

      I personally think that the competitors have realized from the beginning that nuclear energy needed to be bottled up as tight as possible to prevent its natural technical advantages from leading to a complete market disruption.

    • Atomikrabbit says:

      @Robert
      That DUFF design looked pretty sweet – can you reveal the enrichment level, how they planned on dealing with fission product poisons, and what type of instrumentation was needed?

      I think if physicists (who coined the terms “barn”, and “flavored quarks”) still have a sense of humor, the project logo should have come from the label of Homer Simpson’s favorite beer.

      All that you say about the remarkable capabilities of the national labs is true – their primary drawback is that they serve at the whim of whatever politicians are in power, and must bend to the ideology-du-jour. I don’t think we have had a scientific visionary in the Oval Office since Jefferson.

      • Brian Mays says:

        Remarks at a Dinner Honoring Nobel Prize Winners of the Western Hemisphere, April 29, 1962:

        “I want to tell you how welcome you are to the White House. I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

        John F. Kennedy

  10. Robert Steinhaus says:

    Atomikrabbit – A few more details on the DUFF Space Reactor –
    DUFF Space reactor was designed to be both small and light. The actual reactor core of DUFF is not much larger than a 12 oz. beer can and is a four-inch-diameter cylinder of highly enriched uranium (HEU). The heat pipe cools the reactor down and moves energy to the Stirling engine-generator. DUFF is designed to prototype a future NASA flight qualified nuclear reactor that could reliably produce 24 watts of electricity continuously for long space missions to locations like the outer planets.

    Flat-top is a critical assembly that once were housed in the Criticality Experiments Facility (CEF) at LANL and then were moved to the Nevada National Security Site’s National Critical Experiments Research Center (NCERC) a few years ago (at the time of the move it was NTS and CEF, both were later renamed). These critical assemblies (Flat-top, Godiva 4, Comet, and Planet) are rapid design confirmation prototyping aids used for criticality benchmark experiments, cross section measurements, DOE/NNSA’s hands-on criticality safety training courses, and support of a variety of other training and research assignments.

    Flattop, used in building the DUFF Space reactor prototype, is unique in that it is a very comprehensively characterized (and as a result rather safe) uranium-reflected highly enriched (233U, U-235, Pu-239) sphere, and can be operated, if desired, near super critical. Flat-top also has a hole through its center that permits insertion of experiments or isotope samples, in this case, this feature was used to insert a heat pipe that was built specifically for this test. In DUFF, the purpose of the heat pipe was multi-fold. In reality, the heat pipe did not so much cool the reactor as it was used to channel just the right amount of fission heat to the Sterling engine so that the Stifling engine-generator would produce the specified electric power requested by NASA (24 watts).

    It is still possible to quickly, safely, and inexpensively physically prototype reactor designs using resources available in the National Laboratory system.

    Nuclear power is to important to just give up on and drop. We should continue to innovate better nuclear.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Robert Steinhaus

      It is still possible to quickly, safely, and inexpensively physically prototype reactor designs using resources available in the National Laboratory system.

      And it should be just as possible to quickly, safely and inexpensively tinker with nuclear materials outside of the National Laboratory System under a more reasonable regulatory regime that is not designed from the ground up to slow the development of beneficial nuclear fission technologies that can take markets away from politically powerful fossil fuel interests.

      • Robert Steinhaus says:

        Rod – You make excellent points and I am in agreement with what you suggest.
        The greatest single impediment to innovation in fission nuclear is the unwarranted level of current US nuclear regulation.
        Every high technology industry depends on new ideas from new industry participants to be healthy. To have innovation only occurring at DOE National Labs would greatly curtail vitality in new nuclear development. Sadly, our current circumstance is that only modest substantive development in new fission nuclear is occurring either in the private sector or in DOE National Labs, and such development as is occurring seems to be taking place around SMR projects for which there is only a very weak economic case. For SMRs to be successfully introduced, they need to be able to compete with natural gas power plants on cost. With large fully paid for legacy reactors like Kewaunee Power Station not being able to compete with natural gas power plants on cost of electricity, it is hard to understand how higher cost new SMRs laden with debt will compete.

        • Rod Adams says:

          @Robert Steinhaus

          1. Current natural gas prices in the US are an aberration. In Europe, gas prices are high enough that companies are shutting down three year old plants because they cannot profitably operate – the spark spread is negative. The only reason that natural gas is being used in Japan at current prices is that they are not allowed to operate their nuclear plants.

          2. Small reactors do not have to compete against gas in many locations. Reactors can be built in areas where there is no natural gas pipeline infrastructure; gas plants need pipelines. If you include the cost and schedule requirements of constructing a pipeline of a few hundred miles in length, you will quickly see that even at current prices, gas is not such a cheap and quick alternative.

          3. Who says SMRs have to be higher cost per unit? If they are designed to be simpler, with fewer systems and components, they can be built for the same or lower per unit output cost.

          • Engineer-Poet says:

            Current natural gas prices in the US are an aberration.

            Apropos to that, Rigzone comments:

            As the financial crisis and resulting recession trimmed domestic energy and natural gas consumption, while at the same time gas output was growing, gas prices slid until they bottomed in early 2011 in the $3/Mcf range, or less than half what prices had averaged in the pre-crisis era. While natural gas futures prices have recently rebounded above $4/Mcf, they are now trading in the mid-$3/Mcf range. The average price for the post-financial crisis era appears to be in the $3-$4 range, which is about half the average price for gas before the crisis. What appeared so promising and profitable for the gas business at mid-decade now looks to be a distressingly difficult challenge.…The natural gas industry’s response to sliding prices in 2010 was traditional – stop drilling. Unfortunately, the gas shale revolution had imbedded in its DNA an impediment for halting the price slide. That impediment was the commitments producers had made in their leasing agreements with landowners that the companies would commence drilling wells quickly and bring them into production in order for the landowner to receive his royalty income. These clauses were used to convince skeptical landowners they would not be yielding future income by signing leases, when past industry practices saw leaseholders often sitting on the acreage until larger property tracts were assembled, or waiting for higher gas prices. There was always the risk for the landowner that his acreage could be condemned by a neighboring dry hole. While these drilling commitment clauses were inserted by companies with a marketing edge in mind during the land-frenzy, they were not considered a potential problem since conventional wisdom at the start of the shale revolution was that the gas was sealed in blanket formations extending over the entire area and that the wells would be universally productive throughout

            Much more at the link.  TL;DR:  the current low price of shale gas is a consequence of a specultative bubble based on over-optimistic projections of profitability and higher prices, combined with binding commitments to drill and produce regardless of economics.  When producers go bankrupt, this bubble will pop and natural gas plants will abruptly become uncompetitive again.

    • Atomikrabbit says:

      “uranium-reflected highly enriched (233U, U-235, Pu-239) sphere”

      Interesting. Were these three types of fissile used together, homogeneously? In layers? Or are you talking about three separate cores? If the former, it would seem to greatly complicate the neutronics calculations. (If need be, you can tell me, then kill me)

      • Robert Steinhaus says:

        Atomikrabbit – My apology, the fissile sphere inserted in Flat-top is typically a selection of only one of the three prepared choices (U-233, U-235, or Pu-239). A custom sphere could include a mixture of fissile elements, but that is not how the fixture is typically used.

        As a practical matter, it is my understanding that the U-233 sphere has not been used in the assembly for some decades as a result of gamma producing decay products building up in the U-232 sphere giving rise to a low level exposure hazard to nuclear workers.

        You can get more detailed information on Flat-top from the pdf previously linked -
        Description of Flat-Top Critical Assembly – http://www.osti.gov/bridge/servlets/purl/6463833-PO5QS4/6463833.pdf

      • Robert Steinhaus says:

        Atomikrabbit – I apologize, you get to chose any one of three choices of characterized Flat-top fissile spheres 233U or U-235 or Pu-239 at a time (but not multiple spheres at once).

        It is my understanding that the U-233 sphere is no longer regularly used in Flat-top because of gradual buildup of gamma producing decay products in that sphere that create a low level exposure problem for nuclear workers.

        More info on Flat-top – http://www.osti.gov/bridge/servlets/purl/6463833-PO5QS4/6463833.pdf

        • Atomikrabbit says:

          Thanks for that very interesting link. A100,000 MW critical assembly (even if only for a microsecond) is an impressive demonstration of natures power!

          The article said the U233 core was 98.1% pure. It doesnt say what the balance is, but if it is U232 and daughters, no wonder it is unusable for testing (or practical weapons). But it would do just fine dissolved in some molten FLIBE!

          Hanford used to consider U233 contaminated with less than 10 ppm U232 as high grade. I wonder what the source of this Flat-top material was, and how long it has been sitting around decaying. I doubt if we have made any new high purity U233 in 40 years.

  11. Cyril R. says:

    We are still a long way from a good public debate on nuclear power.

    Bit of anecdotal evidence. Yesterday I visited a major city library. It was a huge library and had lots of fun books about energy. Surprisingly there were only two books about nuclear power. One about Chernobyl, the other about the weapons connection.

    Imagine trying to read up about dirigibles and zeppelins, but finding only two books about the subject: one about how many people were killed by the Hindenburg, a hydrogen filled design that no one is using today, the other about how many people were killed by bombs dropped from dirigibles in various wars. Obviously this would not help you to read up about how dirigibles work, or what their potential is. In stead you would get the impression that dirigibles are just evil things and you might choose a different research sujbect. Yet it is the case with nuclear power. Good debate is actively discouraged by the major media outlets. If there is any debate, it must be about how evil, evil nuclear anything really is.

    There were many more books about “renewable” energy. Most of them were about the glittering future of these wonderful, wonderful energy sources. They were mostly uncritical. The exact opposite of the nuclear books.

    If you pay attention to this, you’ll notice the negativity and mindless uninformed criticality about nuclear power everywhere. Newspapers, 8 o clock news, all the major media outlets are filled to the brim with negativity and shallow debate.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @Cyril R

      Yet it is the case with nuclear power. Good debate is actively discouraged by the major media outlets. If there is any debate, it must be about how evil, evil nuclear anything really is.

      As a child, I was one of those annoying kids who always ask “Why?” I retained that habit.

      Why do you suppose advertiser supported media outlets are so negative about nuclear energy? (That is, by the way, a leading question. I am pretty sure I have found the answer.)

      • Cyril R. says:

        While I’m not prone to conspirary theory, I can understand that for some companies disabling a powerful competitor is simply good business.

        However, what startled me about the anecdote was that the library is not advertiser funded. They are publicly funded, by government money. Yet the librarians have clearly made the decision to not have books explaining how a nuclear reactor works. But several books explaining how solar panels work, even though they are not anywhere near as important as nuclear power in delivering electricity to the world.

        What I’ve found is that it’s tempting and very easy to adopt the default negative opinion about nuclear power. It’s big, sounds corporate, must be evil. In the political right there’s more positive attitudes towards nuclear power, but for the wrong reasons (many are proponents just to annoy the left political side). This political situation is not helping at all, with most leftists opposing nuclear for the wrong reasons and most rightists supporting it for the wrong reasons. It keeps the debate stupid.

        So bottom line, there are a lot of sides to this story, commercial, political and personal, and are working in unison against the advancement of nuclear power.

        • James Greenidge says:

          Silly as it sounds, Hollywood’s portrayal of nuclear is a strong public nuclear perception factor, nowadays aiding and abetting the political anti-nuke leanings of most in that community. Hollywood has been a positive help in public nuclear perception: you didn’t hear much virulent anti-nuclear ranting when the TV “Batman” had an atomic powered car and Seaview was sailing on nukes and Steve Austin had atomic powered bionic limbs — whose “action figure” back then proudly boasted their were. The “Terminal Man” and 2001′s spaceship Discovery and the Pan Am spaceplane were nuke powered and you just didn’t hear much bad stuff about nuke power (outside bomb) them. When TMI and Fonda happened “good nuclear” on TV and movies and even toys vanished. Nukes exploded the moon in 1999 and Superman battled Nuclearman and we all know which side he was! I watched “The Final Countdown” about the USN Nimtiz and missed any word that she was a nuke! Every gadget that was supposed be nuclear suddenly ran on magic. Even SciFi ran away from nukes! What gets me is just how far Hollywood went to avoid the term nuclear or atomic when the plot device obviously was! Take the recent film case of “Ironman”. We all KNOW he’s nuclear powered — all the clues and side terminology is there — but is the word nuclear or atomic ever used in his films?? Imagine how many people would see less evil and more kindly upon nuclear if they had!

          James Greenidge
          Queens NY

  12. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. says:

    The title of this article is,”Nuclear plant designed, manufactured, constructed & tested in less than 2 years” yet most of the comments simply ignore the last forty years of American history. The comments are 1970 arguments, e.g a NASA 1960s flight rated nuclear reactor TO BE sent into space, or whether private or DOE reactor technology is a better path versus a rebuttal about the GE Boiling Water Reactor technology development.

    Go visit the old GE Atomic Power Engineering Division site in San Jose today. In the 1970s it was a campus size center of thousands of the brightest minds in America. (they regularly beat me up intellectually.) It is now a mall, holds Home Depot, WalMart, and other centers of technical excellence. A dinner with an old gray beard will inform you, the cadre of experts who developed 1250 MWe reactors, weighing over 1300 tons each, holding 150 tons of uranium, simply no longer exists. They are dead.

    In a survey, done in 1991 of most US engineering colleges, 69 reported that they had dropped the coursework needed to engineer thermal power plants. Thus our nation lacks an entire generation of educated, experienced middle level or senior level engineers, (1985 + 30 year career = 2015 retirement date.) DoE is noted for its gray haired experts, with little or no newbies behind them. There are a host of reason why but most of America’s real experts, in CIVILIAN power, are looking up at grass roots.

    I object to the verb tense, and the inability to face reality. America killed civilian nuclear power a long time ago. In twenty five years, 1940 – 1965, America created, from nothing, both a fission technology and a fusion technology, which revolutionized human history. From 1975 through today, we have filled libraries with unread reports on nuclear energy, and as noted, most are lousy propaganda. in 2013, the question is IF, not when it can be revived? I am certain the government can pour billions on anything, e.g a wind mill, but they can not create one smart brain. And no one knows what they do not know.

    Comprehend historical facts. The hour is beyond late. My advice to bright teens: forget engineering, do as 97% of the Harvard faculty who have young children, teach them Mandarin. Ask Harvard if America could build a nuke in two years. Most would consider this a foolish question posed by tradesmen. If you ask the wrong question, or ask the wrong person, you get a wrong answer.

    • Brian Mays says:

      Go visit the old GE Atomic Power Engineering Division site in San Jose today. … A dinner with an old gray beard will inform you, the cadre of experts … simply no longer exists. They are dead.

      No, they are just no longer in California. This is not unique to nuclear. Go ask any of the “old gray beards” in California who used to work in the automotive or aerospace industries.

      DoE is noted for its gray haired experts, with little or no newbies behind them.

      It’s clear that you haven’t been to a DOE lab in a long time.

      Ask Harvard if America could build a nuke in two years.

      Since when could the nitwits from Harvard build anything? When it comes to success at building stuff, Harvard is known more for its dropouts than its graduates.