Rockwell’s perspective on the history of nuclear power regulation

Ted Rockwell has been an active participant in the development of nuclear energy production in the United States since the very earliest days of the technology. He started his nuclear career as an engineering troubleshooter in 1943 at the site that is now Oak Ridge National Laboratory during the Manhattan Project. He was one of the earliest members of Rickover’s Naval Reactors team, starting when Rickover was still a Captain. He served as Technical Director during the project to build the USS Nautilus – the world’s first nuclear powered submarine – and the project to build the Shippingport reactor, the world’s first commercial light water reactor power station.

In 1964, he and several of his Naval Reactors colleagues struck out on their own to form MPR Associates (he was the R), one of the most respected engineering services providers in the power generation industry.

Rockwell is still actively involved in sharing what he has learned in his long and highly distinguished career as a nuclear energy professional. He recently shared a paper titled A Critical History of the Regulation of Nuclear Power that I believe is worth distributing as widely as possible. It provides the basis for numerous important discussions that the industry needs to have, both internally and with external stakeholders.

Aside: The fact that one of the earliest pioneers in nuclear energy is as energetic and intellectually active as Ted Rockwell is should help people understand why I believe that nuclear energy is an incredibly young technology with a lot opportunities for future improvements. I can envision a whole series of ‘S’ curves that will sustain human technological development for many centuries into the future. End Aside

PS: On page 13 of Rockwell’s paper, there is a link to the document that was produced to include the presentations at the American Nuclear Society’s President’s Special Plenary titled Low Level Radiation and Its Implications For Fukushima Recovery held at the 2012 ANS Annual Meeting in Chicago, June 24-28, 2012. The link in Rockwell’s paper leads to a 54 MB file that can be difficult to download and distribute for people with limited network capabilities. Removing the color covers from the document reduces its size to a much more manageable 15 MB; that is the version you will find at the link in this post.

As anecdotal evidence supporting the idea that chronic exposure to low levels of radiation is beneficial and can contribute positive health and longevity effects, I like to point to a page titled The Chicago Pile Pioneers. It provides information about the fact that at least two of the people who were there at the very beginning of the Atomic Age and worked in the field for their entire careers are still alive today. It also shows how many of the people lived well into their late 70s, 80s and 90s for those who have passed away. That information should be reassuring.

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5 Responses to “Rockwell’s perspective on the history of nuclear power regulation”

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  1. Daniel says:

    A few things that were brought up by Dr Burton Richter a few days ago that could complement the discussion:

    – Contrary to France, there is no long term plan for nuclear energy in the US. (That should be part of regulation, but from president to president things change in the US)

    – The 9 subcommittees on the DOE playfully mix policies and technical criteria. DOE should only deal with technical stuff

    And the gem:

    – Consider the fact that the DOE can, at one of its labs, go ahead with an experimental fission system that is not approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). After all, the DOE is supposed to develop new technologies, while the NRC is supposed to deal with things in the civilian nuclear world.

    In other words, the DOE labs don’t need NRC approval to make a 5MW version of TerraPower’s reactor. They could just go do it. But it’s so agonizing to get [lab] approval for that kind of thing. So political. Ultra-greens would say too dangerous and NRC has to approve it, and NRC would say it will look into it and it would take a decade.

    That’s the reason Nathan [Mhyrvold] and Bill Gates said, “Let’s build the first one in China.”

    • donb says:

      Quoting Dr. Burton Richter, Daniel wrote:
      Consider the fact that the DOE can, at one of its labs, go ahead with an experimental fission system that is not approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

      There was a turf war about this 3 or 4 years about this very thing. DOE said “We can do this,” and NRC said “Over our dead bodies.”

      Of course, political expedience reigned, so the NRC won that round. It will take political leadership that is forward thinking to endure the slings and arrows that will surely come their way should they be so bold as to advance the cause of nuclear energy.

      • Daniel says:

        @ Donb

        An interesting variation on the theme Security by Obscurity. The NRC throws rules that don’t exist at the DOE and the DOE stops what it is intended to do.

        This way, less innovation in the nuclear pipeline, less commercial space covered and for the NRC, that is increased security for all.

        An NRC moment.

  2. Gmax137 says:

    Thanks Rod – that is worth reading thru a couple of times.

  3. jmdesp says:

    The list of pile pioneers is very interesting. Graves in the list, was the man standing right behind Slotin in the criticality accident, 3 feet from the source when Slotin was 1.5 feet away. He survived 19 years to the accident, dying of a stroke at 56. He had received enough radiation to impair his eye’s lens (seems to have been radiation induced cataract).