The history of nuclear power technology is often as much a political study as it is a technical study. Perhaps no other technological development has ever been so tied to the actions and interests of government bodies and foreign affairs. In this issue of AEI we will focus on the early market struggle between the American light water reactor and the European gas cooled reactors.
Regular readers will know that the last two issues of AEI have discussed some of the technological ancestry that existed when the decisions were made. Those with a knowledge of the current nuclear industry know the outcome of the reactor battle fought in the period from 1956 until 1964. American style light water reactors won, and now account for more than 80% of the operating reactors and more than 86% of the operating nuclear capacity.
Knowing where you are is never enough if you are attempting to project where you will be in the future. You also have to take into account where you have been, where you are headed, and how fast you are moving.
It is often instructive and useful to use hindsight to see where you have been, and what kind of path has brought you to your current position. It is especially useful to do that evaluation at a time when you seem to have stopped making progress and there are several alternative paths available.
Jockeying for Position
The British fired the first shots in the nuclear electrical power plant market battle with Calder Hall 1, a gas cooled Magnox reactor that reached full power in October, 1956. The first light water reactor used for central station power generation at Shippingport, Pennsylvania reached full power in December 1957, more than a year later.
American descriptions of the result of this first skirmish often sound a little strained. “In October 1956, the British Calder Hall station supplied power to the national distribution system, but the reactor was also designed to produce plutonium for the British weapon program. Shippingport was the first full-scale plant designed and operated solely for the purpose of advancing civilian reactor technology.”
The fact is that America, despite all the advantages that it had in nuclear technology as a result of the wartime programs, was not the first nation to produce a nuclear powered electrical generating station. There is no doubt, however, that the market battle had just begun.
The articles in this issue are a bit longer than the normally found in AEI because of the complexity of the topics discussed. These articles are based on extensive culling of sources often written by people with a direct hand in the events described.Some of the better sources are listed in the suggested reading box on page 7.
This issue is also about a relatively narrow time period with a narrow set of participants in order to keep it within our normal format length. We hope that you enjoy the saga of a very interesting battle. We will cover other market battles in later issues.