ALCO’s 1950’s Nuclear Gamble

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In April 1957, when the new, small nuclear plant at the Army’s Fort Belvoir, Virginia site first started up, it seemed as if the plant’s vendor, ALCO Products, had carried off something of a coup.  Winning this important early contract had come about three years earlier for this small but well-equipped company that was looking to diversify and it seemed as if a bright future lay ahead for it.  However, by mid-1962 the company had sold the bulk of its nuclear business to Allis-Chalmers (with some vessel contracts going to Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton.)  What happened? We’ll take a brief look as we walk through a photo montage.

ALCO Reactor Facility Press Photo - CopyAccording to reporting in NUCLEONICS in May 1959, ALCO (known as the American Locomotive Company until 1955 when it officially became ALCO Products) spent and probably lost a great amount of money trying to set itself up to become a full-fledged reactor vendor.  When it got the contract for the Army Package Power Reactor, it did so, it was reported, by seriously underbidding everyone else.  This was one way companies with some extra cash got in – it’s how Stone & Webster became engineers on Shippingport, for example.  However, ALCO reportedly lost over $2.5 million on the APPR (later, SM-1) project.  The APPR / SM-1 plant is shown at the top of this article; above, we see the nuclear criticality test facility ALCO built at Schenectady, on its own dime, in 1956 to prepare core designs for APPR and later reactors. (ALCO Products press photos in Will Davis’ collection.)

ALCOpackagedreactorALCO’s bread and butter became small, packaged military reactors as seen above in an ALCO advertisement.  The company quickly became known for these, and bid on and won a number of early contracts for such plants – but also lost out on some of them to other new entrants like Martin.  Still, the company soldiered on, hoping that these reactors would really multiply as predicted and, importantly, that these contracts would lead to larger plants.

ALCO Nuclear Products ComputerALCO purchased an early analog computer system, seen above in an ALCO Products ad, in order to be able to perform core and plant design analysis as well as analysis of specific subsystems and components.  Eventually ALCO had two such computers in order to set one up as a primary or reactor simulation and the other as a steam plant simulation, which NUCLEONICS reported in 1959 to be the first such setup known anywhere.

ALCOsmallRxvesselweldapp

 

The company was very strong in the mechanical component end of the business.  In addition to supplying many heat exchangers for civil and Navy projects (ALCO specifically did NOT desire to become a Navy reactor vendor, it was said) and even the very complicated and expensive heat exchangers for the Enrico Fermi Atomic Power Plant, it manufactured reactor vessels itself.  Here we see a seamless, mandrel-forged reactor vessel in ALCO’s shop after application of a stainless steel interior layer.  Even then it was known that having welds in the belt region of a reactor vessel led to reduced vessel life due to embrittlement.

ALCO Right Angle Control Rod Drive

ALCO also got into control equipment; here, from an ALCO ad, we see an ALCO Products control rod drive mechanism.  This right-angle rack and pinion type rod drive, with electric motor, was actually used on a number of early reactors – not just those built by ALCO.  It seemed at the end of the 1950’s that ALCO was “here to stay,” by dint of contract or dogged determination, in the reactor business.

So what happened?  Well, even though ALCO designed and offered a 125,000 KWe commercial type nuclear plant, there were no takers- the firm could not get any AEC Power Demonstration contracts.  Further, the predicted vast spread of small military packaged reactors did not take off and even before ALCO exited the market there was buzz about the whole small, remote reactor concept potentially being less safe, or perhaps at the very least, less ‘clean’ than had been predicted.  ALCO Products was not a powerhouse like Westinghouse, or GE and had only its locomotive business to prop it up.

Today, we’d call that locomotive business the “core business” of the company and in 1962 with possible mergers on the horizon as a result of ALCO’s worsening financial condition, it was decided to spin off most of the businesses other than the locomotive business.  ALCO did retain its profitable and low-risk heat exchanger business but sold its nuclear business to Allis-Chalmers, who itself was looking to expand its nuclear business any way possible.

By 1964, ALCO was reaching its 100th year of existence.  It announced its new, heavily revamped “Century” series diesel locomotives and took the first step toward its own future without nuclear energy.  The shooting meteor had appeared, risen, fallen and finally vanished.

Will DavisWill Davis is a member of the Board of Directors for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. He has been a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and he used to write his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is also a consultant and writer for the American Nuclear Society, and serves on the ANS Communications Committee and the Book Publishing Committee. He is a former U.S. Navy reactor operator and served on SSBN-641, USS Simon Bolivar.  His popular Twitter account, @atomicnews is mostly devoted to nuclear energy.

 

 

8 thoughts on “ALCO’s 1950’s Nuclear Gamble

  1. Harry Kister

    Hi Will, Your story about ALCO’s attempt at getting into supplying components for the Navy back in the early 60’s brought back some memories about my experience with them…I was a Nuclear Inspector at Mare Island Naval Shipyard during that time…We were receiving ALCO Emergency Cooling Heat Exchangers and Pressurizers for the S5W submarine reactors that we were constructing…I was doing receipt inspections of these components and we were finding multiple problems especially with their welding quality…Primarily Pressurizer heater welds and heat exchanger tube welds…In fact, we ended up installing one heat exchanger in the Stonewall Jackson (SSBN 634) not knowing that it contained some foreign material in one of the headers…We didn’t find it until Cold ops and we ended up cutting off a header end cap where we found and removed a rubber dam…Lots of fun…As you may recall the tanks where they were mounted in submarines were pretty cramped…

    Anyway, just thought I would pass on my ALCO recollections..A lot of time has passed however the memories stay with me..

    Sincerely, Harry Kister

  2. Gene Grecheck

    One additional little known fact: the test reactor in Schenectady was given to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY, as a key component of that school’s new Nuclear Engineering program. The reactor was used for a critical reactor lab course for students until earlier this year. The reactor is still licensed and operable, but is currently not used for teaching. The old ALCO plant site was an urban eyesore for decades, but over the past five years or so was redeveloped as a casino complex. The city of Schenectady had been placing a lot of pressure on RPI to remove the reactor, which is at one end of the casino site, but the two parties were never able to come to a financial agreement (RPI was essentially saying to the city: if you want us to remove it, then you pay for the decommissioning.) So the reactor is still there, and there are periodic discussions about moving it elsewhere, but nothing currently planned.

  3. Paul Krishna

    My first job in the nuclear industry in 1963 was Reactor Engineer in the Nuclear Power Field Office at Fort Belvoir. The job involved supporting all the APPRs including SM-1. I enjoyed reading this article and a previous one about decommissioning of SM-1. Brings back lot of fond memories. That program developed substantial data on radiation effects on reactor materials through operating PM-2A under the ice in Thule, Greenland. The program also produced Sturgis the first barge mounted floating nuclear power plant to provide power to locations in disaster areas. Those are just 2 examples of many other pioneering achievements. The program did not receive its due recognition as it was over shadowed by Rickover’s naval nuclear propulsion program.

  4. Tom LaGuardia

    Will
    Another professionally written and documented historical capture of our industry’s development! Thank you for your contributions!
    I would sincerely like to team up with you on decommissioning project experience to share with our industry!

  5. Charles W Adey

    Will:
    Love your work.
    After 11 years at GE, NMP1, Oyster Creek, Millstone and Pilgrim, I joined Stone and Webster in 1976. My Boss was Joe Gallagher who had worked at ALCO on their reactor project.

    I met Jon Stouky when working at Stone & Webster and after starting TTX we collaborated on a lot of projects including some on the Sturgis, got to tour the Savannah a couple of times. I really miss Jon.

    How’s the Savannah coming?

    Regards,

    Chuck Adey

  6. Bob Trejo

    Great story. The Schenectady facility was acquired by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for its nuclear engineering program. I recall trudging out there in the middle of winter for “Crit Lab”.

  7. Thomas Williamson

    I worked at ALCO 1957-58 on the APPR. I wish the article would mention some names of people involved. Dr Larry Meem, Dr Reed Johnson and others.
    Tom Williamson

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