At 12:30 am on December 18, 1957, the operators of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station synchronized the rotation of the alternating current being produced by the plant’s single steam turbine generator with the electricity already being supplied by the local grid and closed the output breaker.
For the next few hours, the operators quietly increased the power output and by 7:00 am, as the Duquesne Light Company customers were making their morning coffee and toast, the plant was supplying enough electricity to fully power about 12,000 homes. Of course, the customers had no way of being able to tell which of their appliances was now atom powered – as soon as it left the atomic plant’s output breaker, the electricity was mixed in with the electricity supplied by coal, oil and natural gas heated power plants that made up the rest of Duquesne’s grid.
(Note: If you want to “fly” to Shippingport, PA to see what is there now, enter the following coordinates in Google Earth 40°37’54.98″N, 80°24’51.01″W. Don’t let the cooling towers just to the northwest of those coordinates fool you – those are part of the coal plant that is also on the Ohio River near the site of the first nuclear commercial nuclear plant. Scroll over to the southwest from there to see the two reactor plants – Beaver Valley – that are currently operating very close to where the Shippingport reactor used to be.)
As readers of Atomic Insights or listeners of The Atomic Show, you may have heard Ray Haroldsen’s story about supplying a bit of electricity to the town of Arco, Idaho on July 17, 1955 for a few hours using a makeshift transmission line and one of the BORAX series of test reactors. You might also have heard or read works by some GE loyalists talking about how their privately financed, 5 MWe boiling water reactor at Vallecitos Nuclear Center actually beat Shippingport to the punch by supplying power to the grid in California on October 19, 1957.
What made Shippingport different from those two demonstrations was that it was a full size plant that was designed from the ground up to be a reliable part of an established power grid as well as being a test plant for improvements in pumps, valves, materials, and reactor core components.
President Eisenhower, as part of his Atoms for Peace program, wanted to show the world that it was well within the realm of technical possibility to build power stations that did not need continuous supplies of coal, oil, or natural gas. He was sure that his vision could be realized because he was fully informed about the technical advances that had been achieved for the production of reliable power for ships and submarines. By December 8, 1953, when he made his famous Atoms for Peace speech to the United Nations, Ike already had a plan in place that he was pretty confident would work. The team he had chosen to make his vision a reality – the Naval Reactors Group, under the leadership of recently promoted Rear Admiral Hyman G. Rickover – had already designed, built and operated a power producing reactor designed for reliability. The S1W reactor, the land based prototype for the Nautilus, had been running for about 9 months at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho. The team already had a design on hand for an aircraft carrier propulsion reactor that was close to the size needed for a commercially viable central station power plant.
Unlike most of the Presidents that have served during the past century or so, Eisenhower was a throwback to the practical tradition established by George Washington. Before becoming president, Ike had spent about 40 years as an Army leader and understood technology, logistics, engineering, people, and performance. He recognized real challenges and had a good feel for picking people that could turn ideas into reality. He picked well when he chose Rickover’s team to develop a large scale reactor because he knew that they would not take the easiest path but the one most likely to lead to long term success.
In order to put atomic fission into the very important role of supplying electricity as part of a regional power grid, Rickover recognized the need to develop an entire infrastructure of suppliers, trained people, and specialty materials. He knew that people would have some concerns about the hazards of the new power source, so he and his team made every effort to reassure people by doing their best to anticipate problems and engineer solutions that would avoid them.
He also knew that the secrecy that had surrounded the development of the submarine reactors would be detrimental to the development of a commercial industry so he had his team prepare a series of about a dozen unclassified Naval Reactors handbooks that provided the basis for documenting and sharing the technical knowledge necessary to design, build and operate fission reactors. The topics covered by those books include liquid metals, metallurgy of zirconium, corrosion and water chemistry, computer codes, reactor physics, metallurgy of hafnium, properties of uranium dioxide, neutron absorber materials, and thorium dioxide properties.
(Aside: I sure wish that the current NR organization would open up its library of commercially useful knowledge. I understand the need to protect those portions that provide certain military advantages, but most of what they know is really about producing power that can either turn a propellor or a generator.)
Along with the rest of the team that built Shippingport, which included Westinghouse Electric Company and Duquesne Light Company, Naval Reactors succeeded in showing that pressurized water reactors with steam plant secondary plants could reliably produce power in a normal electric power grid. Shippingport operated for 25 years generated a massive amount of electricity and tested a series of innovative core designs as well as a large number of other plant materials and components. It was not economically competitive without financial assistance due to its pioneering nature – test systems require a lot more engineers, first of a kind components, and extra instrumentation than do final production models. However, it did form the technical basis for more than 300 commercial pressurized water reactors around the world.
I am running out of time before heading off to my day job now, but here are some great links if you want to learn more.
- Mechanical Engineering: 50 Years of Nuclear Power
- Shippingport Atomic Power Station, a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark
As part of my little effort to remind the world that an anniversary like 50 years of nuclear power is a time for remembering the lessons of the past and perhaps using them as guidance for future actions, I will be talking with Ted Rockwell, one of the men who was there during the entire development and construction of Shippingport. Check out the Atomic Show – number 75 – that will result from that interview. It should be available in a day or so.
PS: Here are some additional links about the anniversary:
- AmericanHeritage.com’s story titled The Birth of Nuclear Power in America