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Industry News

Nuclear Power Industry is 42 Years Old -- Today

Forty-two years ago today, Cdr. William R. Anderson of the U.S. Navy, captain of USS Nautilus recorded his position in his log. The time was 11:15 EDST and the position was 90 North Latitude. EnergyOnline Daily News editor Ric Teague wrote about the birth of nuclear power for the August issue of a publication on maritime history.

When headlines across the United States told on 4 August 1958 that an American submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571), had on the previous day reached the North Pole, submerged under the Arctic ice cap, everyone knew it was big news.

Almost no one knew just how big that big news was. The voyage of Nautilus under the ice cap begat an industry that now supplies 20 percent of the electricity consumed in the United States, about a third in Japan and the United Kingdom and 75 percent in France. Reliable figures are not available for former Iron Curtain countries because of the unreliability of their Soviet-era reactors, but they too are heavily dependent on nuclear generation.

Worldwide, about 17 percent of the electricity consumed is generated in nuclear power plants. All of these power plants, and all of the industries that serve them, grew out of the U.S. Navys development of the nuclear reactor that permitted Nautilus to navigate under the Arctic ice to the North Pole.

We are interested here in events in maritime history, so well first address the cruise of Nautilus. We will return to the nuclear power industry later, for the U.S. Navy has its hand on the helm, as we shall see.

The Birth of the Nautilus

In September 1947, at the request of then-Capt. Hyman G. Rickover, a study was begun at Oak Ridge, Tenn., to explore the use of a pressurized, water-cooled nuclear reactor to create steam that would drive the propulsion machinery of a submarine. The following January, the Department of Defense asked the Atomic Energy Commission, now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to develop and build such a reactor.

In August 1949, the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Forrest P. Sherman, established a January 1955 "ready for sea" date for a nuclear powered submarine. In August 1950, President Harry S. Truman signed Public Law 674, authorizing construction of Nautilus.

Construction began immediately on a prototype reactor at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho, now the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. Not only was this reactor built from scratch, it was built inside a mock-up submarine hull which was itself in a tank of water. The development was 100 percent new engineering, with cut-and-paste shortcuts not allowed. And Rickover was everywhere.

At 2317 Idaho time on 30 March 1953, the reactor "went critical" -- that is, a nuclear reaction took place. That moment marked the beginning of production of useful power from a nuclear reaction. In late June, the reactor began a 96-hour full-power test.

In August 1951, the U.S. Navy had awarded a contract to the Electric Boat Company of Groton, Conn., for construction of the first nuclear powered submarine, and the keel of Nautilus was laid on 14 June 1952. On 21 January 1954, Mamie Eisenhower broke a bottle of champagne across the ships bow, and Nautilus slid down the ways and into the Thames River. She bore the most famous name in submarine history. And she lived up to it.

Nautilus was commissioned on 30 September 1954, her propulsion plant was first operated at partial power on 20 December and at full power two weeks later, tied alongside the dock. On 17 January 1955, she put to sea for the first time, and her commanding officer, Cdr. Eugene P. Wilkinson, sent the message:

Underway on Nuclear Power

On her sea trials, Nautilus made high speed runs, surfaced and submerged, at speeds never before seen in a submarine and made more than 50 dives. Her propulsion machinery operated without incident. She was accepted by the Navy on 22 April 1955.

On her shakedown cruise, Nautilus began breaking records right and left. She sailed 1300 miles in 84 hours from New London, Conn., to San Juan, Puerto Rico, submerged the entire distance. She then steamed from Key West, Fla., to New London, a distance of 1,400 miles, in about 70 hours.

After two years in service, during which she steamed more than 62,500 miles (more than half of it submerged), Nautilus returned in April 1957 to New London to be refueled. Refueling a nuclear power plant consists of removing bundles of fuel rods -- metal tubes containing pellets of enriched uranium oxide fuel -- and replacing them with bundles of rods containing fresh fuel. The spent fuel can be reprocessed to provide more fresh fuel or, as in the United States for political and ideological reasons, stored at great expense.

Once refueled, Nautilus deployed to the Pacific via the Panama Canal, returning to the Atlantic for Nato exercises. During that year, she made several voyages that took her under the Arctic ice cap, presaging what was to come.

90 North Latitude

Nautilus, now commanded by Cdr. William R. Anderson, departed Pearl Harbor on 23 July 1958 under highly classified orders. The name given her task was "Operation Sunshine," perhaps because where she was headed was the Land of the Midnight Sun, perhaps in dissimulation. The submarines crew thought she was bound for Panama and had outfitted themselves accordingly. A good deal of planning had gone into the voyage, and it was done with almost no knowledge of the Arctic and its ice.

How thick was the ice? How much did that thickness change? How deep was the sea under the ice? Those questions came immediately to mind. Then, one wondered, what of navigational instruments? A magnetic compass would be useless, it was agreed, but what of a gyro? Navigation by dead reckoning would be impossible for Nautilus -- and there would be no "star to steer her by."

A tentative probe of the ice pack had been made a year earlier, in August 1957, and Nautilus had reached 87 degrees north latitude, about 180 miles from the North Pole. It was a learning experience, and among the things learned was that neither compass would function that far north. Nautilus was subsequently fitted with an inertial guidance system developed by North American Aviation for the intercontinental missile program.

In the spring and summer of 1958, Nautilus was working with the Pacific Fleet. Later that year, she was scheduled to participate in NATO exercises in Europe. The need to get from the Pacific to European waters coincided nicely with a decision, supported by President Eisenhower, to try for the North Pole.

Planning for the voyage was done in the utmost secrecy, for it would do great damage to the Navys nuclear program if the ship failed in a publicized attempt. Information -- or misinformation -- was let out that Nautilus would transit the Panama Canal. Work orders were written for a stop at New London. The crew, as noted, went shopping for clothes appropriate for summer liberty in the Canal Zone. Anderson, in order to get a first-hand look at the Arctic ice fields, made several trips to Alaska, clad in mufti and using an assumed name.

The voyage under the ice contained few dramatic moments, even from a submariners view. In the forty-two years since, writers have provided their own drama, some contrived, some perhaps true. One story has a member of the crew sneak himself into a forward torpedo tube so he could be the first to reach the North Pole. Another has Anderson counting off the seconds, as is done in a space launch, as Nautilus crept toward the North Pole. The real drama lay in the achievement -- at 1115, Eastern Daylight Time, 3 August 1958 Nautilus crossed under the North Pole and continued on her underwater journey to England, arriving nine days later.

Atoms for Peace

Even though the feat had been accomplished by a warship, the world could immediately see that it was a peaceful application of atomic power, and rejoiced. It was only a matter of time before this awesome power was put to use lightening mankinds load.

That, in fact, had already happened, on dry land in Pennsylvania, and the U.S. Navy had done it. In 1953, Rickovers Naval Reactor Group was working on a prototype for an aircraft carrier. It would be a reactor twice as large as those used in submarines. There were other large reactors in the U.S., England and Russia, but they were used for making weapons grade plutonium. Some of those reactors produced insignificant quantities of by-product electricity. By July of that year, the aircraft carrier had been shelved, but Rickovers cadre of nuclear professionals was about to be asked to build the worlds first nuclear power plant.

A ground-breaking ceremony for the commercial nuclear power plant was presided over by President Eisenhower at Shippingport, Pa., on 6 September 1954. As was the case with the Nautilus prototype, much of the design took place during the plants construction. On 26 April 1955, for example, Rickover decided that the tubing that contains pellets of uranium oxide to form a fuel rod should be made of a zirconium alloy, a departure from naval reactor practice. The tubes were successful and the fuel rod design became standard for most of the worlds nuclear power plants. The pellets of fuel, incidentally, are about the size of the eraser on the end of a wooden pencil -- and each of them contains the amount of energy you would get from a ton of coal.

Perhaps it is time to briefly describe the operation of a nuclear power plant. The reactor, where the nuclear reaction takes place, can be thought of as a different kind of boiler. Heat from nuclear fission creates steam which spins turbines and they in turn drive generators to produce electricity.

The nucleus of an atom contains small particles called protons and neutrons, and uranium as a very heavy element contains many of these in its nuclei. Fission begins when a neutron strikes a nucleus. The nucleus breaks apart into two smaller nuclei, releasing more neutrons which strike more nuclei and so on. This is called a chain reaction. The chain reaction is controlled by using an element that readily absorbs neutrons. Cadmium was used in the first reactor built by Enrico Fermi in the basement of the squash courts at University of Chicago.

Clusters of fuel rods are interspersed with control rods made of hafnium, the selection of which was made on the recommendation of Dr. Alvin Radkowsky, Rickovers chief physicist. The entire assembly is placed in the reactor core, which is itself contained in a pressure vessel. When the control rods are fully inserted into the bundles of fuel rods, no reaction takes place. As they are gradually removed, a reaction begins and gains strength as the control rods are further removed. As the reaction grows, intense heat is generated. Powerful pumps circulate water through the pressure vessel as a coolant. The superheated, pressurized water is pumped through thousands of small tubes in steam generators where water from another source is turned to steam that powers the plants turbines.

At Shippingport, the first reactor core was installed on 6 October 1957. On 2 December, engineers inched up the control rods and the plant "went critical," meaning a nuclear reaction had begun. Ramping a nuclear power plant up to full power is a complex and meticulous process even today, with numerous "hold points" for testing and verification of data. It was very meticulous at the worlds first commercial power plant. On 18 December, the plant was synchronized with the regional transmission grid and went on line. On 23 December, Shippingports naval operators ramped the plant up to design capacity of 60 megawatts, puny by todays standards, but big then.

When President Eisenhower formally "switched on" Shippingport on 23 May 1958, he said the plant "represents the hope of our people that the power of the atom will ease mankind's burdens and provide additional comforts for human living." The impact of that event was worldwide, and the Navy had done it. Commercial nuclear power had become a reality just four and one-half years after the job was turned over to Rickover and his Naval Reactors bunch.

Today, with 104 reactors churning out about 85,000 megawatts of power in the U.S., the presence of the Navy is still strongly felt. Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of engineers were trained for industry by Rickovers group, and many more chose the electric power industry after serving in the Nuclear Navy. Possibly the two most prominent executives in the commercial nuclear power business today are Corbin A. McNeill Jr., chairman, president and chief executive of Peco Energy Co., the old Philadelphia Electric Co., and Oliver D. Kingsley Jr., president of the Nuclear Generation Group of Unicom Corp., the parent holding company for Commonwealth Edison Co. of Chicago. They are both former submarine commanders, and both worked miracles at their companies by applying Navy standards to moribund corporate nuclear programs.

The American nuclear power industry, born with USS Nautilus 42 years ago, has never been in better shape. As this is being written, the countrys nuclear power plants are operating at a power factor of more than 95 percent, and they are producing competitively-priced electricity without polluting the environment. With recent concern over "global warming," it would appear to the rational observer that nuclear generation offers the best opportunity to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere.

In any case, in the first 150 years of the industrial revolution, a third of the countrys known coal reserves have been consumed. Natural gas is a finite resource being consumed at ever-increasing rates. So-called "renewable energy sources" arent really all that renewable. To construct wind farms to replace the generation now provided by nuclear power would require between 50,000 and 100,000 square miles of land, and you would have power only when winds were favorable, which is not 95 percent of capacity, or even 25 percent of capacity.

Admiral Hyman G. Rickover and his Naval Reactors Group developed the first practical nuclear reactor for Nautilus and developed the first commercial nuclear reactor for Duquesne Light Co. Almost all of the nuclear power plants in the world today are built on principles established by Rickover and his nautical team. The renaissance in nuclear generation of electricity in the U.S. today can be traced in large part to the efforts of progeny of the Navy nuclear program and to the development of Nautilus, and her dramatic voyage under the Arctic ice cap.

Members of the United States Navy community can take pride in this record, which in President Eisenhowers words, repeated here, "represents the hope of our people that the power of the atom will ease mankind's burdens and provide additional comforts for human living."

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