0
Select Articles

50 Years of Nuclear Power PUBLIC ACCESS

In the Depths of the Cold War, Atoms for Peace Produced Landmark Results.

[+] Author Notes

Frank Wicks a frequent contributor is a mechanical engineering professor at Union College in Schenectady. N.Y.

Mechanical Engineering 129(11), 36-39 (Nov 01, 2007) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2007-NOV-4

This article highlights the Atomic Age that announced itself to the world with the destruction of two Japanese cities in 1945. After the first bomb fell, on Hiroshima in August, mankind suddenly realized that it possessed a new technology of unprecedented destructive power. In 1948, Untermyer transferred to the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. The lab traced its origins to Enrico Fermi, who with Leo Szilard had been first to demonstrate a nuclear chain reaction only six years earlier. Argonne was the first national laboratory with the mission of developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Untermyer left General Electric (GE) in 1964 to find the National Nuclear Equipment Corp. to design and manufacture equipment for the nuclear industry. He was awarded several more patents. GE’s Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor also makes use of passive systems. According to GE, the reactor has more than 72 hours of passive running capability, and its simplified systems make it cheaper to build and run.

The Atomic Age announced itself to the world with the destruction of two Japanese cities in 1945.

After the first bomb fell, on Hiroshima in August, mankind suddenly realized that it possessed a new technology of unprecedented destructive power.

By the 1950s, the rivalry between the West, more or less led by the United States, and the East, comprising the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc, had turned into the Cold War. Both sides were locked in a race to stockpile and deploy the deadlier nuclear arsenal. It became dogmatic that only mutual assured destruction could deter one side from annihilating the other.

The very real threat of nuclear devastation was imprinted in the popular consciousness by newspapers and the rising medium of television, by air raid drills in public schools, and even by movie fantasies of giant man-eating insects, created by fallout-induced mutation.

Then, a new phrase fell into a world gone mad: Atoms for Peace. It was the title of a speech delivered by President Dwight Eisenhower to the United Nations in December 1953. In it, Ike pledged the United States "to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life."

The president's words resonated with people in the age of fallout shelters and even found their way onto postage stamps. They gave rise to a new way of thinking about nuclear reactions. And alternative uses of nuclear fission were not long in coming.

There are two ASME Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmarks that memorialize Atoms for Peace. One was the Shippingport Nuclear Power Station, west of Pittsburgh. It used a pressurized water reactor designed by Westinghouse and provided electricity, not terror. The other, also a generating plant, was a General Electric boiling water reactor at the Vallecitos Nuclear Center near Pleasonton, Calif., east of San Francisco.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of both reactors, which were built to turn technology that could level cities into a source of light and comfort.

Each facility has a different history. The pressurized water reactor design at Shippingport was originally developed to power an aircraft carrier. It was closely associated with President Eisenhower, who wanted a working demonstration to highlight the Atoms for Peace proposals he made in the speech at the U.N. The pressurized water reactor, or PWR, was also preferred by Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy.

Groundbreaking for the Shippingport plant was per- formed with a flair worthy of Rube Goldberg. Eisenhower, who was traveling in Colorado, waved a wand that contained a neutron source. It activated a radiation detector that sent a telephone signal to start a robotically programmed bulldozer back at the plant site.

The president later traveled to Shippingport to participate in a well-publicized startup ceremony.

While the pressurized water reactor required more equipment than the boiling water alternative, the PWR was easier to analyze. The nuclear stability and heat transfer performance of a pressurized water reactor had been demonstrated on the early naval prototypes. This is a reason that the PWR had already been selected as the preferred type for shipboard propulsion.

Thus, the use of the pressurized water reactor for electric power generation was probably inevitable. In contrast, the development of the boiling water reactor as a competing concept happened against the odds. While the BWR had some obvious advantages, it also had some serious concerns related to nuclear and flow stability.

Comparing one reactor design to the other is similar to comparing a direct current motor with an alternating current motor. Pressurized water, like dc, is easier to analyze, but the boiling water reactor, like the ac motor, is simpler to build. While the boiling water reactor might ultimately have cost and operational advantages, it would be much more challenging to analyze, and therefore to control. Thus, commercialization would require more effective promotion, analysis, and testing than it would for the alternative.

The improbable development and commercialization of the boiling water reactor can be credited to the creativity and perseverance of a single mechanical engineer named Samuel Untermyer. He is recognized as the sole inventor of the BWR as described by U.S. Patent 2,936,273. It was issued in 1960 and titled "Steam Forming Neutronic Reactor and Method for Controlling."

This seminal patent describes the fundamental technology for the approximately 90 boiling water reactor plants that are operating in 10 different countries today. More are planned for the near future. These plants are a monument to Samuel Untermyer. His vision and promotion of the technology led to preliminary tests at nationallaboratories and to the successful operation of the Val1ecitos plant, which received the Atomic Energy Commission's Power Reactor License Number 1. These successes were vital for making conunercial BWR power plants a largescale reality.

While Samuel Untermyer never became as well known to the public as did Hyman Rickover, his contributions are strongly recognized within the nuclear industry. He was named a Fellow of ASME, was a founder and Fellow of the American Nuclear Society, and a recipient of the Franklin Institute's Newcomen Medal.

The Vallecitos boiling water reactor, at a General Electric test site, was the first nuclear power plant to contribute electricity to the grid, and so was the first to realize the goal of Atoms for Peace.

The pressurized water reactor at Shippingport, Pa., based on technology adopted by the Navy, was favored by President Eisenhower and Admiral Rickover. It and the Vallecitos reactor are ASME landmarks.

Grahic Jump LocationThe pressurized water reactor at Shippingport, Pa., based on technology adopted by the Navy, was favored by President Eisenhower and Admiral Rickover. It and the Vallecitos reactor are ASME landmarks.

Untermyer was born in New York City in 1912. His grandfather and namesake, a prominent lawyer and an advisor to President Woodrow Wilson, was a friend of Albert Einstein.

The younger Sam studied mechanical engineering at MIT and graduated in 1934. He joined the Navy during World War II and achieved the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

Like most people, his first awareness of atomic energy was the reports of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. 'A year later, in 1946, he took a position with the Atomic Energy Commission at Oak Ridge, Tenn., where the uranium enrichment plants had been built for the Manhattan Project.

His colleagues at Oak Ridge included Alvin Weinberg and future Nobellaureate Eugene Wigner, whose book Physical Theory oj Nuclear Chain Reactions remains the classic work for analyzing nuclear reactors. Untermyer worked with them on the concepts that led to the pressurized water reactor for the Nautilus, the first nuclear powered submarine.

In 1948, Untermyer transferred to the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. The lab traced its origins to Enrico Fermi, who with Leo Szilard had been first to demonstrate a nuclear chain reaction only six years earlier. Argonne was the first national laboratory with the mission of developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

At Argonne, he worked with Waiter Zinn, another renowned physicist and lab director. His first work was related to the fast breeder reactor. The basis for a breeder reactor is that natural uranium has two isotopes. Only 0.7 percent of the atoms are U235, which will fission. The remainder are U238 atoms that will not fission, but can capture an excess neutron and become fissionable plutonium 239.

Thus, the objective of a breeder reactor is to produce fissionable plutonum at a higher rate than it depletes fissionable uranium. Untermyer performed breeder experiments and developed methods to predict breeding ratios, or the ratios of plutonium atoms produced to uranium atoms that are depleted by fission.

Samuel Untermyer then directed his focus toward the heat transfer of water-cooled reactors. The design constraint for pressurized water reactors was that there would be nucleate boiling or the formation of little steam bubbles on the smface of the fuel to enhance heat transfer, but no bulk boiling of the water. Thus, pressurized water would leave the reactor at a temperature below the boiling point.

While performing experiments, Untermyer came to the revolutionary conclusion that it would be acceptable to allow bulk boiling within the reactor. A mixture of steam and water would leave the reactor. A moisture separator would then direct the steam to the turbine, and the water toward recirculation through the reactor. He also developed a theory about how such a reactor could selfregulate the nuclear chain reaction.

This was a theory that required testing. He proceeded to prepare a successful proposal for the construction of the first boiling water experimental reactor at Argonne. It was given the acronym BORAX, which denoted "boiling reactor experiment." He next served as chief engineer on the design of a 5,000 kW experimental boiling water reactor that provided electric power within the Argonne facility.

The initial heat transfer and flow stability tests were performed with electrically heated elements. Additional nuclear safety-related experiments that involved power excursions on an actual reactor were funded by the Atomic Energy Commission and performed in the isolation of Argonne's Idaho test site.

The path had been prepared for the commercialization, but the boiling water reactor would require the active support of a major corporation.

General Electric, meanwhile, had contracted with the Navy for the development of nuclear powered ships via the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory. The company's leadership was also prepared to enter the commercial nuclear business, and a version of the pressurized water reactor used by the Navy would have been a likely choice.

Untermyer, however, used his results to convince GE's management that the boiling water design had the potential for lower cost and better operating characteristics.

General Electric recruited Untermyer in 1954 and formed an atomic power equipment department in Schenectady, N.Y. His job was to direct the design and construction of what would be the Vallecitos Boiling Water Reactor, which went into operation three years later on the system of Pacific Gas and Electric. GE's atomic power equipment department and Untermyer moved to expanded operations in California.

Untermyer left General Electric in 1964 to found the National Nuclear Equipment Corp. to design and manufacture equipment for the nuclear industry. He was awarded several more patents. His company was later purchased by Thermo Electron.' After his death at the age of 88 in 2001, the American Nuclear Society established a Samuel Untermyer Award to recognize pioneering work in the development of safe water-cooled reactors.

The boiling water and pressurized water reactors were competing concepts in 1957. Fifty years later they remain in close competition. France standardized on the pressurized water reactor. Japan has installed mostly General Electric-designed boiling water reactors.

A renewal of nuclear plant construction has been expected for some time now in the U.S., as older plants are deconunissioned and electric demand continues to grow. In September, NRG Energy became the first company in almost 30 years to apply for a license for a new nuclear reactor in the U.S.-two reactors, in fact, at a site in Texas. A few weeks earlier, the Tennessee Valley Authority voted to complete a reactor for which it already has site and construction approval from decades ago.

The time between orders has given both the PWR and BWR manufacturers the opportunity to make design improvements. General Electric has introduced an advanced boiling water reactor, or ABWR, with an increased rating of 1 ,350 to 1,600 MW of electricity. Safety and operational improvements result from relo cating pumps, a more integrated reactor and containment, modernized control systems, and improved fuel design.

Two ABWR plants of 1,350 MW rating have started in Japan, and 10 more are planned. Taiwan is building two ABWR plants. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has certified the design for use in the United States. NRG has applied to build two of these reactors.

Both the BWR and the PWR will also have to compete with other concepts. For example, the gas-cooled pebble bed modular reactor is a concept first developed in Germany and will be showcased in a new reactor about to be added to a power plant in Koeberg, South Africa. Various types of gas-cooled reactors are now being pursued in several countries including China.

Faculty and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, under the direction of Andrew Kadak, have been designing and promoting a version of the hightemperature gas-cooled pebble bed reactor.

Although it is not without its controversies, nuclear power today has come to mean something far different from what it conjured in the minds of people 50 years ago. Certainly, there are still stockpiles of nuclear weapons, but there is no longer the expectation that they may be launched at any minute.

It is almost 20 years since East and West Germans straddled the Berlin Wall and then tore it down. The U.S.s.R. has been dismantled, and so have many nuclear warheads. There are still rivalries among nations, but nothing as overwhelming as the rivalry of the Cold War, in which every living thing seemed to be at risk.

Today, the Atoms for Peace program seems to have prevailed. Fission is used largely to generate electricity.

Two designs are shaping up as the main competitors for. a new generation ofU.s.'nuclear reactors. They represent advances in the established technologies of pressurized and boiling water reactors.

Westinghouse, on one hand, has the pressurized water reactor called APIOOO. Designed with passive safety systems that don't need ac power or cooling water, th'e reactor uses a fraction of the valves and piping of a conventional plant and can be built much faster-in as few as three years, Westinghouse says.

GE's Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor also makes use of passive systems. For ip.stance, it relies on gravity instead of pumps for re circulation and safety systems . According to GE, the reactor has more than 72 hours of passive running capability, and its simplified systems make it cheaper to build and run.

We'll have to wait a few years, of course, to see if one technology emerges dominant in the next phase of nuclear expansion. But one thing is clear already: Some rivalries never quit.

More on Nuclear Power

Articles recountirrg the development of nuclear power have appeared in previous issues of Mechanical Engineering. Prominent among them was "Nuclear Navy" in January 2004. In that article, Frank Wicks discussed Admiral Hyman Rickover, nuclear propulsion, and the origins of nuclear power generation. In the July 2005 issue, "Plowshares to Swords and Back" looked at the relationship of military technology to advances in the larger society. Both articles can be read online at www.memagazine.org.

Copyright © 2007 by ASME
View article in PDF format.

References

Figures

Tables

Errata

Discussions

Some tools below are only available to our subscribers or users with an online account.

Related Content

Customize your page view by dragging and repositioning the boxes below.

Related Journal Articles
Related eBook Content
Topic Collections

Sorry! You do not have access to this content. For assistance or to subscribe, please contact us:

  • TELEPHONE: 1-800-843-2763 (Toll-free in the USA)
  • EMAIL: asmedigitalcollection@asme.org
Sign In