As a Navy nuke, I was carefully taught to believe that everything we learned about atomic energy had to be strictly protected from release to anyone who was not “cleared”, especially anyone who was not a US citizen. I started to question that policy after I completed my tour as the Engineer Officer on the USS Von Steuben. That was nearly 23 years ago.
I hope that my questioning attitude and continuing curiosity about exploring all aspects of nuclear energy that are not actually related to Navy nuclear propulsion is obvious to anyone who reads Atomic Insights, listens to the Atomic Show, hears me speak, or reads the comments that I have been sprinkling around the web (often under the nom de plume of Atomicrod) since the days when the Usenet was the “social media” service where all of the cool kids hung out.
One of the legends that we learned in the Navy nuclear program is that Rickover really started clamping down on sharing information after he returned from a trip to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1959. Through the amazing technology that we now have at our fingertips, I recently found a contemporary newsreel account of one of the key events that led Rickover to decide that the US needed to draw a veil around our Navy’s atomic energy program.
Rickover’s participation on Nixon’s trip to the Soviet Union and his two to three hour tour of the Lenin is also described in Francis Duncan’s Rickover, published by the US Naval Institute Press in 2001. With more time and space available, Duncan provides a deeper background about the trip and the tour.
As he tells the story, there was a brief thawing in US – Soviet relations in 1959. As part of the high level discussions taking place during that time, Frol Kozlov, First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, visited the US at the end of June and beginning of July. During his visit, Kozlov received tours of US nuclear facilities including the Shippingport nuclear power station and the Camden shipyard where the NS Savannah was being built.
Admiral Rickover, whose Naval Reactors team had led the Shippingport design and construction project, conducted the tour of that facility and developed a bit of rapport with Mr. Kozlov. Soon after Kozlov’s visit, Vice President Nixon was scheduled for a reciprocal trip to the Soviet Union; the agenda included a tour of the Lenin, a newly constructed icebreaker that was the first Soviet ship powered by nuclear energy.
Nixon’s staff consulted with John McCone, the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, to find a technical expert who could also be diplomatic to accompany Nixon on the trip. Despite his reputation as someone who was often not diplomatic and was frequently difficult to deal with, Rickover made the short list of people that McCone recommended. Nixon admired Rickover’s ability to get things done, so he was added to the entourage.
Though Rickover initially asked to include some of his Naval Reactors staff, that request was denied because the diplomats planning the trip did not want to make the vist too technically oriented. Here is a fascinating quote that provides some insight into the tenor of the times and the trip.
Rickover talked to Nixon and won his consent to offer the Soviets a wide ranging agreement to exchange information on all power reactors, all reactors producing fissionable material for weapons, and all nonnaval propulsion reactors.
(Duncan, Francis Rickover, US Naval Institute Press, 2001, pg 162)
As described by a US State Department memorandum of conversation documenting a discussion held in Moscow on July 25, 1959, Rickover told the Russians that the US was willing to share information about many aspects of its nuclear energy program, while carefully exempting essentially all of the program for which Rickover had direct responsibility. The Soviets took that offer under advisement for further discussion and review through the bureaucracy.
Here is a quote from the memo, which I highly recommend reading in its entirety.
Admiral Rickover stated that he was authorized to make arrangements for exchanges on all reactors including those for use in aircraft. The United States would be willing to exchange information on reactors in return for similar or other information from the Soviet Union.
Mr. Kozlov said that this was a very interesting proposition and that it could be considered by the Soviet Government.
Admiral Rickover stated that the United States has plutonium-producing reactors at Hanford and the Savannah River plants. The United States would be willing to exchange information on all types of reactors so that the Soviet Union could see for itself that the United States is willing to turn to peaceful utilization of atomic energy. The United States would like to have quick results in the matters of such exchanges and it is offering them in a spirit of true sincerity. Also, the Admiral continued, the United States is developing at Hanford a dual purpose reactor for the production of plutonium and electric power. The Soviet Union seems to be also designing such a reactor and the United States would be prepared to exchange information on all reactors, including the one just mentioned. The United States would be prepared to open the information and technology on all reactors located on land.
Mr. Kozlov replied that the Soviet Government would consider this proposition and inform the United States of its views.
Aside: Just imagine how different our world might be today if that specific offer had been accepted with some follow through. If US design information about our “dual purpose reactor for the production of plutonium and electric power” had been shared, perhaps a few different choices would have been made in the final design of the RBMK dual purpose reactors. Chernobyl might not have had the same consequences even if all of the the ill-advised operational decisions that actually caused the accident had been made. End Aside.
On July 27, 1959, Nixon and Rickover were initially given a superficial tour of the Lenin that did not provide any real access to the reactor or the propulsion plant. Rickover was not satisfied and pressured his hosts into providing additional access. He spent two to three hours in the plant and took notes about what he saw.
The icebreaker had three pressurized water reactors. Inspecting them as painstakingly as he could, Rickover concluded that the Soviets had much to learn. The reactor compartment was poorly laid out and there was not sufficient attention paid to safety. Physicists, he suspected, were responsible for the shortcomings, and he repeated his longstanding conviction that reactor development was more a matter of engineering than physics. The Lenin looked ready to go to sea, even if the Russians said they had not tested the reactor. Rickover was inclined to disbelieve the statement; if the reactor had not been tested, he would have seen numerous instrumentation and cables. (Later sources stated that the icebreaker was commissioned in 1959.) He thought the Russians probably did not yet have atomic submarines.
The Lenin held one major lesson for Rickover; the layout of the plant, components and auxiliaries were important intelligence targets. He determined that Americans must not allow uncleared individuals or foreign nationals to see their naval nuclear propulsion plants.
(Duncan, Francis Rickover, US Naval Institute Press, 2001, pg 166)
Duncan provided a slightly different version of Rickover’s visit to the Lenin in his book titled Rickover and the Nuclear Navy, published by the US Naval Institute Press in 1990.
Now willing to talk more readily, the Russians told him the Lenin was ready to go to sea at the end of the year. To Rickover, the plant looked rugged, but poorly designed and laid out. The propulsion system consisted of three pressurized-water reactors that would provide heat to the steam plant for four turbine generators. They would provide electrical power to three propulsion motors, each driving a propeller. Rickover thought placing all the reactors in one compartment was bad, for a radiation leak in one would make the others inaccessible. The location of the heat exchangers was poor, and the way the piping ran made some plant components difficult to reach.
After his return home, Rickover testified behind closed doors to a deeply interested joint committee. He thought work on the Lenin was not moving fast; he thought the United States, if it put sufficient effort into the Long Beach could have the world’s first nuclear surface ship. But on a deeper level Rickover was disturbed by the impression he gained, not of the Lenin but of Russian society. He intensely disliked its form of government, but it could decide on a course of action and quickly mobilize the necessary resources. In nuclear propulsion the Americans held the position of leadership; however, there were no grounds for complacency. Convinced that the Russians were far behind, but were able and determined, Rickover saw more reason than ever to protect the technology.
(Duncan, Francis Rickover and the Nuclear Navy, US Naval Institute Press, 1990, p. 177)
Throughout my time as an atomic advocate, I have been careful to avoid discussing any aspects of the Navy’s nuclear power program that were not already unquestionably in the public domain. However, I believe that the basis for the secrecy has been overcome by world events. The excessive classification system should be ended by the people who have the power to make that decision with a few strokes of a pen.
In terms of basic science and engineering, there are no real secrets inside the program, but there is an enormously rich set of tools, knowledgable people, data about complete system performance in unusual situations, understanding about material behavior under extreme conditions (especially high burnup, long life reactors) and carefully designed personnel training systems that could be incredibly useful in civilian applications.
One of the primary assets of the program is ownership of a number of well-proven complete system designs for small nuclear power plants that can be manufactured in factories with proven start-to-finish times measured in a few years rather than a decade or more. These designs have not been licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but they have been approved and operated under a legally available alternative path under the auspices of the Department of Energy.
Like any manufactured product that is built with a very low production rate, naval nuclear propulsion plants are expensive. However, in my opinion, they can be manufactured at a lower cost if built at a more economical production rate with a focus on continuing improvement. I make that statement based on my own experience as an Engineer Officer responsible for training, operations and maintenance of a nuclear propulsion plant, as the former general manager of a small manufacturing facility, and as a former Navy requirements analyst with access to reasonably detailed cost information associated with both initial production and long term maintenance.
With appropriate cost control measures, already proven plants built to Naval Reactors standards can produce reliable power that is competitive in a number of key markets. Examples include: 1) providing reliable, long-term, independent power to remote locations and 2) powering large commercial ships that must currently burn distilled fuel oil. There is an installed base of skilled manufacturing and construction labor that can provide the nucleus for a larger workforce, there are existing, underused manufacturing facilities, and there is a large base of skilled, trained and experienced operators that have proven that they can operate and maintain the plants.
The Cold War ended more than two decades ago. Secrecy about naval nuclear propulsion should be seen as a vestige of a long ago time that is no longer appropriate in a world that could benefit greatly by having access to the flexible, reliable, emission-free systems developed for a valuable commercial application – reliable propulsion and power production that reduces dependence on increasingly costly hydrocarbon fuels.
Just in case you are interested in seeing some of what Rickover might have seen during his tour of the Lenin, I came across a 3-D interactive tour of the ship, which is now a frequently visited museum.
The Energy Collective (December 2, 2013) Military Continues to Move Forward on Clean Energy by Peter Lehner, Executive Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
PS: I want to task readers with helping fill a gap in documents that can provide additional depth to this story. I found this note at the bottom of the State Department memo about the July 25, 1959 meeting:
An extensive summary of Admiral Rickover’s meeting with Kozlov at Shippingport on July 11, including quotations from their conversation, was published in The New York Times, July 12, 1959. This account notes only that Rickover told Kozlov that all the information at the atomic power plant would be made available to Kozlov, and he gave him a packet of books on the construction, operation, and operating history of the plant.
I am a digital subscriber to the New York Times and frequently use the archive search feature, but when I searched for “Rickover” during the period from July 1 to Aug 1 1959, the only returns were on July 1 and August 1. According to a different State Department memo, there should have also been another article about Rickover’s interactions with the Russians on July 28, 1959. Not finding either article makes me wonder why they are not in the digital archive.