Author Archives: Will Davis

Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival 235

ferris wheel 202x201The 235th Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival has been posted at The Hiroshima Syndrome.

Click here to see Carnival 235.

Each week, a new edition of the Carnival is hosted at one of the top English-language nuclear blogs. This rotating feature of nuclear “posts of the week” represents the dedication of those who are working toward a future of energy abundance, improved health, and broadened security through nuclear science and technology.

Past editions of the carnival have been hosted at Yes Vermont Yankee, Atomic Power Review, ANS Nuclear Cafe, NEI Nuclear Notes, Next Big Future, Atomic Insights, Hiroshima Syndrome, Things Worse Than Nuclear Power, Neutron Bytes, AREVA Next Energy Blog, EntrepreNuke, Thorium MSR and Deregulate the Atom.

This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support.  If you have a pro-nuclear energy blog and would like to host an edition of the carnival, please contact Brain Wang at Next Big Future to get on the rotation.

Thorium shines brightly at ANS Winter Meeting

by Will Davis

I have generally been quite a skeptic about thorium as a source of nuclear fuel. Although I know that thorium was tried in the fuel at two very early commercial power reactors in the United States (Elk River, and Indian Point-1), the idea did not take off. The proposals to use thorium in fluid fuel reactors were far less successful, with none moving beyond the prototype stage. Even given the low success rate, it still remains that the use of thorium is promising.

Thorium itself isn’t fissile, because it can’t itself be split to produce energy.  However, if it is bombarded by neutrons then after a decay process it produces a fissionable isotope of uranium.  So, it is called “fertile” rather than “fissile,”  and it is fairly abundant.  There are many millions of metric tons of it around, and it’s not being used for much.

So today, at the ANS 2014 Winter Meeting, I attended the “Thorium Resources, Recovery, Fuels and Fuel Cycles” session in order to see for myself what the cutting-edge thinking might be on using this apparently abundant, but now-all-but-abandoned, nuclear fuel.  The efforts and papers put forth were brilliant, and my view has changed.

The leadoff paper, Thorium Recovery from Rare Earth Element Deposits in the US (Bradley Van Gosen, Steven Krahn, Timothy Ault) first showed us that thorium is very abundant right here in the United States. There are in fact several operations underway right now that can supply it, and that is because thorium is found in the same place where rare earth elements are found.  Thorium is tossed aside as a radioactive nuisance.   According to the paper’s authors, since the material is already being pulled from the ground, and if and when a thorium fuel cycle for nuclear reactors develops, then it can piggyback on the existing rare earth mining operations.  That is a concept that could significantly reduce the capital cost of the fuel cycle.  Furthermore, if the thorium is recovered from mine tailings already dumped, it can help toward what would normally be considered remediation of a mining site.  In other words, what was once perceived as hazardous waste cleanup, would still be viewed as hazardous, but also as a fuel source.

The presentation detailed a number of mining operations, both underway and planned in the US, from which thorium could be obtained if required.  However, it noted that major hurdles face this particular prospect.  For example, the present thorium market is small, and there is zero market for fuel; no government subsidies exist either.  No present facility exists to separate the thorium from the mine tailings; if one did, it would need complicated permitting to stockpile concentrated radioactive material.

These observations made the next presentation all the more important.  “Environmental Impact of Thorium Recovery from Titanium Mining in North America” was delivered next, out of order due to a schedule problem (authored by Timothy Ault, Steven Krahn, Allen Croff, Raymond Wimer).  It pointed out that there is an enormous demand for titanium worldwide, far higher than for rare earths (primarily in white paints) and that where you find titanium, you also find thorium.  In fact, there are dozens of possible titanium (and thorium) mining sites in the US Piedmont Region, beyond the ten or so already operating there.  While the process to separate the thorium from the basic ore would require very large amounts of not only water, but chemicals too, it requires no new materials or processes to be developed that aren’t already in existence. Further, the cost of the process could be driven down if other rare earths essentially sloughed off from this process were sold as commodities.  Thus, the production of thorium from already existing titanium mining is far more attractive than simply finding other ores in the ground and starting a mine from scratch or even remediating rare earth mine tailings.  This essentially moves that first step of the thorium fuel process from the “where, and how” phase to the “here, and here’s how” phase.

In fairness the paper’s authors did detail that the thorium fuel process done this way does have a relatively high radiation dose rate — primarily at the first step where the original ore, called Monazite, is broken down to extract the thorium.  This is because of radioactive Radium-228, which then follows the rare earths through the process.  However, titanium mines here and in Canada already have some processing facilities nearby (although not for nuclear fuel) and have very sufficient transportation infrastructure.  After hearing these arguments, I myself became convinced that thorium might not be that hard to come by after all as a fuel source, and we know how to deal with radioactive materials quite well enough.  One person at the session did speak up and point out that the more or less mainstream thorium messaging constantly points out that it’s about four times more plentiful than uranium, but that this messaging ignores the fact that thorium is also distributed exceedingly sparsely around the world in small concentrations over large areas.  This makes economic recovery of thorium as a fuel a problem, unless you piggyback the process on something already existing, such as mining titanium.

The next paper is at the ANS Winter Meeting session is what really convinced me that this material could actually be used in commercial nuclear fuel, in my lifetime.  Saleem Drera of Thor Energy (a small company of 20 people) delivered a paper on his company’s efforts to develop commercial nuclear fuel, already well underway, which uses thorium and which can be burned in, and licensed in, present light water reactors.

Thor Energy is already testing fuel pellets of a number of designs in the Halden Research Reactor in Norway. The company’s theory is that the introduction of thorium should be “evolutionary, not revolutionary” and should start with the present design of reactors (both boiling water reactors and pressurized water reactors) that will be the mainstay of commercial nuclear power worldwide for at least the rest of the 21st century. To that end, it’s already testing fuel pellets made in its own small lab setup in the Halden Research Reactor in Norway, with excellent results. The company feels that its fuel design could actually allow any reactor in which it is used to receive a power uprate. That is an important point for a utility trying out a new fuel, since the profit margin will be higher. The company’s second run of test fuel pins will be put in the same reactor in 2015. A good deal of the presentation was given to the actual process for manufacturing the fuel, but what is important is that right now we have fuel pins that will work in conventional existing reactors under test.

The final paper presented at the meeting was written by Gonghoon Bae and Ser Gi Hong of Kyung Hee University, South Korea. It was an exceedingly technical review of a new, small, light water reactor core design that can burn what we call TRU or transuranic materials. These are the worst of the materials in spent nuclear fuels, and there have been many attempts over the years to develop reactors that can burn them up. This South Korean group has developed a small (308 MW thermal) reactor, a light water-cooled moderated reactor. It uses a special, graphite-stainless steel neutron reflector and specially developed fuel, including thorium, that can actually burn up a very high percentage of TRU material. The reactor is planned to operate on a four and a half year fuel cycle, and can burn up 25 percent of the transuranics inserted into the core and/or generated in it during operation; part of the fuel includes reprocessed TRU material.

South Korea, however, is now reaching a choke point when it comes to storing spent nuclear fuel. Currently it is working on building a small, light water-cooled and moderated and partly thorium-fueled reactor that can burn up the waste.

I walked out of that session convinced that I need to keep an eye on all of these development tracks. I was enthralled by the enthusiasm of those in the room presenting, and the competence of the questions from the audience. Not only was this one of the best technical sessions I’ve seen at any ANS meeting, it left me changed; I can see a way out for thorium now.

________________________________

SavannahWillinControlRoomWill Davis is the Communications Director for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. where he also serves as historian, newsletter editor and member of the board of directors. Davis has recently been engaged by the Global America Business Institute as a consultant. He is also a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013–2016. In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy reactor operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

 

 

ANS Winter Meeting 2014 Opening Plenary – Great New Concept; Hints on Yucca

Jessica Lovering Speaks at ANS 2014 Winter Meeting

Jessica Lovering speaks at ANS 2014 Winter Meeting

Breakout sessions with three acknowledged experts in the areas of nuclear policy, nuclear plant operations, and nuclear regulation were the highlight of an innovative and engaging Opening Plenary at this year’s ANS Winter Meeting

Describe – Discuss – Direct

The three panelists were introduced by meeting General Chair Ed Halpin, senior vice president and chief nuclear officer of Pacific Gas and Electric Company, whose idea it was to change the usual format to a new one. Under the new format, each panelist first gave a short description of his or her position and then ultimately was off to his or her own break-out session. Jessica Lovering of the Breakthrough Institute led off with a discussion on communicating nuclear energy either in light of climate change or in the absence of any discussion of it. Bob Willard, chief executive officer of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, then discussed opportunities that his organization sees for U.S. nuclear plants. Finally, William Ostendorff, commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, described the U.S. nuclear plant landscape from a regulatory perspective.

Bob Willard speaks during President's Special Session today

Bob Willard speaks during the ANS President’s Special Session

After a short Q&A session with all three panelists on the stage, each panelist was dispatched to a corner of the large Disneyland Resort Hotel ballroom hosting the event for personal interaction, and the attendees were encouraged by Halpin to select whichever group interested them more for engagement. The three were swamped and still had more questions to answer when they returned to the stage for a final summary.

In the final summaries all three panelists made it clear that nuclear professionals need to get out and communicate about the benefits of nuclear technology now more than ever. There is a definite knowledge gap for the public, and it is to us that the public will look for honest, straightforward information about nuclear technologies generally and nuclear energy specifically.

Yucca Mountain

Ostendorff

Ostendorff

During his remarks Commissioner Ostendorff made a number of observations about the NRC generally and Yucca Mountain specifically that are of interest to ANS members and the public. Some are condensed below:

  • The final volumes of the Safety Evaluation Report (SER) for the Yucca Mountain repository should be out by January 2015, and for these Ostendorff said that there are “no show stoppers.” There are, however, some 300 contentions to Yucca that may take years to adjudicate.
  • The NRC is not responsible to guarantee a spent fuel repository; that is the job of the U.S. Department of Energy and the Congress, which latter guides momentum of the project by allocating funds.  Ostendorff noted that the new Continued Storage rule (replacing the Waste Confidence rule) does not require long-term geologic disposal of spent nuclear fuel.
  • There is absolutely no need to expedite transfer of spent nuclear fuel from spent fuel pools at nuclear power plants in the United States to dry cask storage.
  • The NRC is not by either design or mandate a politically motivated entity; its job is to regulate and not to dictate policy.

There were, of course, many other interesting and significant things that occurred during the Opening Plenary. These were just a few of the highlights.

_____________________

(Will Davis for ANS Nuclear Cafe. Davis is reporting from the ANS 2014 Winter Meeting this week, here and on twitter – @ans_org.)

Prompt Action Needed by ANS Members on EPA Clean Power Rule

BradyRaap2010_1b

ANS President Dr. Michaele Brady Raap

American Nuclear Society President Michaele Brady Raap has released a letter calling ANS members to action—and by “action,” she means making comments to the Environmental Protection Agency on its Clean Power Rule. According to Brady Raap, “the rule as it is currently structured would almost entirely discount the clean energy contributions of our current nuclear energy facilities and effectively penalize states that have new plants under construction.”

The stated purpose of the EPA plan is to cut carbon emissions from electric generating plants in the United States. While the plan allows each state to come up with its own specific proposals for cutting these emissions, the plan’s guidance as given by the EPA would allow states to actually replace closed nuclear plants with only a fraction of non-emitting sources. Other deficiencies in the EPA directive are enumerated in her letter to American Nuclear Society’s members.

ANS has set up a page on its website covering the EPA Clean Power Rule issues, which can be found by clicking here. Brady Raap’s letter to ANS members on action that can be taken to make ANS’s voice heard is found here.

For more information:

ANS Nuclear Cafe posted an article on the EPA Clean Power Rule in August 2014, entitled “Unintended Anti-Nuclear Consequences Lurking in EPA Clean Power Plan.” Click here to read it.

(Will Davis for ANS Nuclear Cafe.)

Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival 233

ferris wheel 202x201The 233rd Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival has been posted at Next Big Future.

Click here to access Carnival 233.

Each week, a new edition of the Carnival is hosted at one of the top English-language nuclear blogs. This rotating feature of nuclear “posts of the week” represents the dedication of those who are working toward a future of energy abundance, improved health, and broadened security through nuclear science and technology.

Past editions of the carnival have been hosted at Yes Vermont Yankee, Atomic Power Review, ANS Nuclear Cafe, NEI Nuclear Notes, Next Big Future, Atomic Insights, Hiroshima Syndrome, Things Worse Than Nuclear Power, AREVA Next Energy Blog, EntrepreNuke, Thorium MSR and Deregulate the Atom.

This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support.  If you have a pro-nuclear energy blog and would like to host an edition of the carnival, please contact Brain Wang at Next Big Future to get on the rotation.

Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival 232

ferris wheel 202x201The 232nd Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival has been posted at The Hiroshima Syndrome.

•Click here to access Carnival 232

Each week, a new edition of the Carnival is hosted at one of the top English-language nuclear blogs. This rotating feature of nuclear “posts of the week” represents the dedication of those who are working toward a future of energy abundance, improved health, and broadened security through nuclear science and technology.

Past editions of the carnival have been hosted at Yes Vermont Yankee, Atomic Power Review, ANS Nuclear Cafe, NEI Nuclear Notes, Next Big Future, Atomic Insights, Hiroshima Syndrome, Things Worse Than Nuclear Power, AREVA Next Energy Blog, EntrepreNuke, Thorium MSR and Deregulate the Atom.

This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support.  If you have a pro-nuclear energy blog and would like to host an edition of the carnival, please contact Brain Wang at Next Big Future to get on the rotation.

“Nuclear Medicine” – National Nuclear Science Week, Day 5 (October 24)

NSWlogoThe fifth and final day of Nuclear Science Week is all about Nuclear Medicine. Have you ever experienced a procedure at a hospital that employed radiation? Did you know that there are actually many different ways that nuclear technology is employed in medicine—and not just at your local hospitals?

According to the American Nuclear Society’s Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information:

Nuclear medicine and radiology are the whole of medical techniques that involve radiation or radioactivity to diagnose, treat and prevent disease. While radiology have been used for close to a century, “nuclear medicine” began approximately 50 years ago. Today, about one-third of all procedures used in modern hospitals involve radiation or radioactivity. These procedures are among the best and most effective life-saving tools available, they are safe and painless and don’t require anesthesia, and they are helpful to a broad span of medical specialties, from pediatrics to cardiology to psychiatry.

You can learn much more about nuclear medicine at the dedicated CNSTI page on the topic—click here to access it.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has oversight over some, but not all, medical uses of nuclear material and technology. To read about the NRC’s role and to see what it regulates, click here.

The US Food and Drug Administration regulates a portion of the medical field that uses radioactivity; click here to access the FDA’s extensive site portal covering all aspects of what it regulates. You can also find many other useful resources at this link.

(Will Davis for ANS Nuclear Cafe.)

“Nuclear Safety” – National Nuclear Science Week, Day 4 (October 23)

NSWlogoDay 4 of the annual National Nuclear Science week is all about Nuclear Safety.

The use of either fission of atoms, or decay of radioisotopes to benefit man (whether that benefit derives from the production of electricity, the diagnosis of a medical patient, the preservation of food, or many other things) brings along with it a serious responsibility to ensure the safety of not only all involved with the process but those uninvolved as well. To this end, a tremendous amount both of time and money are spent by all organizations designing, operating, or using nuclear technology as well as governmental oversight agencies (often called “regulators,” such as the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.)

The American Nuclear Society’s Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information has a great page covering the many, varied aspects of nuclear technology safety. Click here to access this CNSTI page.

Don’t forget—you can visit the Nuclear Science Week official website for much more information, including lesson plans, and other resources.

“Nuclear Energy” – National Nuclear Science Week, Day 3 (October 22)

NSWlogoThe third day of National Nuclear Science Week is focused upon the production of energy by nuclear means—and that means energy that can do work for man. Electric power, steam for heating businesses and homes, and mechanical power for propelling ships are perhaps the best known examples of man’s use of nuclear energy.

The classic image of a modern nuclear power station, represented by Perry Nuclear Plant, Ohio.  Photo in Will Davis collection.

The classic image of a modern nuclear power station, represented by Perry Nuclear Plant, Ohio. Photo in Will Davis collection.

Regardless of model or type, all nuclear reactors produce heat; this is how we get useful work from them. In the case of a nuclear power plant, the heat is used to boil water into steam, which then is used to run very large turbines; these generate power for thousands of businesses, homes, street lights, traffic lights—everything you see that receives electric power. And did we say “large?” A typical turbine generator at a nuclear plant can be 200 feet long; the parts inside the turbine that rotate can have a total mass of around 700 tons, and the machine overall can develop from 900 MW (megawatts) to 1400 MW. That’s well over one million horsepower!

You can read about nuclear energy in an introductory fashion at the American Nuclear Society’s CNSTI page on Reactors, a special part of the Nuclear Science Week publications.

The U.S. government has two primary offices related to nuclear energy. The Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy develops and promotes nuclear power technologies, while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has the responsibility of oversight of all nuclear facilities in the United States.

••••••••••

For more information on the development of nuclear energy:

The path to developing useful work from splitting the atom (known as “fission”) began with Enrico Fermi’s “atomic pile,” the CP-1, which was the first working nuclear reactor. Click here to read about the effort, and its 70th anniversary.

The first full-scale nuclear reactor of any sort was actually not used for power production, but rather was part of the US Manhattan Project. Still, this complicated and large machine proved out concepts that would be used in power reactors. Click here to read about this reactor, the Hanford B Reactor.

The first nuclear reactor plant intended for the production of useful power alone (propulsion and electricity) was the STR Mark I, which was the prototype or dress rehearsal for the world’s first nuclear powered vessel, USS NAUTILUS.  See some details of the prototype’s construction at this link.

Nuclear energy has been employed to power hundreds of military vessels; it's also been used to propel at least three merchant ships.  The first, NS SAVANNAH, is shown.  Illustration courtesy NS Savannah Association, Inc.

Nuclear energy has been employed to power hundreds of military vessels; it’s also been used to propel at least three merchant ships. The first, NS SAVANNAH, is shown. Illustration courtesy NS Savannah Association, Inc.

General Electric’s Vallecitos boiling water reactor was part of the effort that led to the first measurable commercial sale of nuclear generated electric power in the United States. Click here to read about this project and see a film on it.

President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms For Peace” program led directly to the development of civilian nuclear power in the United States. ANS Nuclear Cafe described that program in a three part feature, which can be found at the following links: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

(Will Davis for ANS Nuclear Cafe.)

“Careers in Nuclear” – National Nuclear Science Week, Day 2 (October 21)

NSWlogoThe second day of National Nuclear Science Week promotes the knowledge of careers in nuclear-related fields.

For most people, the idea of a career in a nuclear-related field might evoke images of the production of electricity by nuclear energy. While that field has a very large number of associated practices, there are many other nuclear-related disciplines. How many times have you passed by, or perhaps even been a patient in, a Nuclear Medicine department of a hospital? Have you ever heard of the use of nuclear technology to evaluate materials? Did you know that nuclear technology can help with the long-term preservation of food items? These are only a few areas of life wherein nuclear technologies are of great benefit to mankind.

The American Nuclear Society’s Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information has a great resource page on nuclear careers; click here to see it. You might be amazed by the number of points of our lives that are touched by nuclear technologies and made better by having been.

(Will Davis for ANS Nuclear Cafe.)

“Get to Know Nuclear” – National Nuclear Science Week 2014, Day One

NSWlogoMonday, October 20, marks the first official day of National Nuclear Science Week—a week long, annual coordinated educational event that promotes nuclear science and technology.

Five years ago the Smithsonian Affiliated National Museum of Nuclear Science and History founded this nationally recognized, week-long celebration. Nuclear Science Week is a unique outreach opportunity that grants teachers, students, and the general public direct access to nuclear technologies and energy experts. A basic introduction to the concept, as well as details of its execution, can be found here.

Each day of the NNSW focuses on a specific theme, and as an introduction the first day is designated as “Get to Know Nuclear.” You might be surprised how many facets of our lives are touched, and enhanced, by nuclear technologies—and you might be surprised how many people know little or nothing about these nuclear technologies. Fortunately, there are a number of great, easy-to-read official sources you can consult if you’re an educator tasked with presenting such material or even if you’re just personally curious.

The American Nuclear Society’s Center for Nuclear Science and Technology Information has set up a special section on National Nuclear Science Week, which can be found here. There is a specially dedicated section for the first day, “Get to Know Nuclear.” ANS also has a variety of educational materials available at this link.

National Nuclear Science Week has its own dedicated stand-alone website, found here, which is presented by the National Museum of Nuclear Science. A schedule of various events throughout the week can be found here.

(Will Davis for ANS Nuclear Cafe.)

ANS Winter Meeting 2014 – What you Need to Know

• What – American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting 2014

• Where – Disneyland Resort, 1313 S. Disneyland Drive, Anaheim, California 92802

• When – November 9–November 13, 2014

The ANS Winter Meeting for 2014 (which also features a Nuclear Technology Expo) is fast approaching—and as with all of these big, national meetings there may be a lot of questions that attendees would like to have answered in one central place. We’ve done that homework for you.

REGISTRATIONClick here to access the ANS Meetings page for registration. Keep in mind that October 14 is the last day for discounted registration, and the last scheduled day to reserve rooms.

RESORT: The venue is the wonderful, completely remodeled original 1955-vintage Disney California resort hotel. All basic information you might want about the hotel can be found at this official Disney link. There is also a dedicated “events” page that Disney has set up with some further links; click here to see it.

Disney Anaheim Resort

Disneyland Hotel, site of the 2014 ANS Winter Meeting. Photo ©Disney and used by permission.

AIRPORTS: The closest airport to the Disney venue is John Wayne Airport, Orange County (identified as SNA).

GETTING AROUNDThe page linked here is an official page set up by the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor and Convention Bureau on transportation opportunities in the area.

FOOD: In addition to the varied assortment of establishments inside the Disney resorts perimeter (see “RESORT” link above), there are many more available outside. The Anaheim/Orange County Visitor and Convention Bureau has also set up a page on dining in the area;  click here to see it. The AOCVCB pages have a number of other useful links available, so make sure to explore those—they include coupons and deals.

COMMUNICATION: It is well known that even with the best of schedules, things can change during meetings. For those purposes it’s helpful to remember the following:

• ANS has a Facebook Event Page that will be used to broadcast changes. Facebook users can also communicate with each other on that page to network during the meeting week.

• ANS will use its Twitter account (look for @ans_org) to communicate during the meeting—both live-tweeting various events and photos, but also broadcasting any changes of rooms, locations, or anything else generally useful. The official hashtag is #ansmeeting—this has been used for over a year for official ANS meetings.

MEETING SCHEDULE: As this post goes to press, the schedule is still preliminary and does NOT include exact room locations for various sessions. We will update this post later with that link when it’s available.

Keep in mind that there will be plenty of ways to find out what you need to know on site from both ANS staff and Disney staff; that said, please don’t miss the opportunity to bookmark this post (or even make an icon on your smart phone) so that you’ll have all these links handy before you even leave home.

We’ll observe the “comments” section for specific questions not answered in the material above. We hope to see YOU there!

_______________________

Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival 230

ferris wheel 202x201The 230th Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival has been posted at the AREVA Next Energy Blog.

Click here to access Carnival 230.

Each week, a new edition of the Carnival is hosted at one of the top English-language nuclear blogs. This rotating feature of nuclear “posts of the week” represents the dedication of those who are working toward a future of energy abundance, improved health, and broadened security through nuclear science and technology.

Past editions of the carnival have been hosted at Yes Vermont Yankee, Atomic Power Review, ANS Nuclear Cafe, NEI Nuclear Notes, Next Big Future, Atomic Insights, Hiroshima Syndrome, Things Worse Than Nuclear Power, AREVA Next Energy Blog, EntrepreNuke, Thorium MSR and Deregulate the Atom.

This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support.  If you have a pro-nuclear energy blog and would like to host an edition of the carnival, please contact Brain Wang at Next Big Future to get on the rotation.

They Harnessed the ATOM – the first Navy prototype nuclear plant

By Will Davis

This past week, a remarkable article was printed in The Atlantic, which gave a full first-person account of the initial trial run of the STR Mark I nuclear prototype plant—the plant that paved the way for the success of the first nuclear powered vessel ever built, the submarine USS NAUTILUS.

At the time this prototype plant was built in the Idaho desert, at what was at that time called the National Reactor Testing Station (NRTS), there was actually a rather remarkable amount of information provided to the public about the plant—mostly in terms of photographs of the plant, if not anything in any real technical detail. Let’s take a look at some of the unclassified views released to the public and published in widely available resources, along with a few details of the plant’s history.

S1WatNRTSJan201954

The photograph above was released January 20, 1954, and was both distributed by wire photo channels (you are seeing a scan of an original photo) and was published in a remarkable PR brochure entitled “They Harnessed the ATOM,” which you’ll see more of shortly. This is the STR Mark I prototype at NRTS Idaho Falls; “STR” stood for “Submarine Thermal Reactor,” the original designation for this plant that was later redesignated “S1W” for “Submarine, First design, Westinghouse.” At the time this plant was constructed, its designer, the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, was operated by Westinghouse for the U.S. government—hence the “W” designation. This of course is the plant whose operation was detailed in the article linked above.

STR Mark I door

Above, the front cover of the brochure “They Harnessed the ATOM” that shows a view into the open door of the STR Mark I prototype. The simulated submarine hull is clearly visible, as is the large tank of water at the opposite end that surrounded the reactor compartment and that was used for shielding.

STR Mark I inside

Inside “They Harnessed the ATOM” is this view (above) looking down onto the STR Mark I prototype power plant. The power plant of course developed a fair amount of waste heat, which had to be dissipated; in these early days, cooling towers were not used but rather spray ponds. The spray pond for STR Mark I is seen below, also from this brochure. The pond, it was said, held 2 million gallons of water and could cool 22 500 gallons of water per minute.

STR Mark I spray pond

Another publication of that time that featured photos and some scant details on the construction of this prototype was “Selected Articles on Nuclear Power,” which took several articles that had appeared in the Westinghouse employee magazine “The Westinghouse Engineer” and republished them essentially as an advertising brochure—although this one was much more pointed at industry than the previous one shown, which was pointed at the general public. Inside the front cover of “Selected Articles,” we find the illustration seen below.

STR Mark I Selected Articles

The upper part of the illustration is a view similar to, but not identical with, that seen earlier while the lower appears to show a student examining a model of the power plant. Naturally, the model is an exterior model only (not a cutaway) and shows no real details of the nature of the construction of the nuclear steam supply system, propulsion or control equipment, or actual plant arrangement.

Inside this publication is an interesting and concise timeline of use to historians:

Timetable of Submarine Thermal Reactor Project

• April 1948 – Formal project established at Argonne National Laboratory

• June 1948 – Original Navy-Westinghouse contract

• December 1948 – Original AEC–Westinghouse contract

• March 1950 – Occupancy of new facilities at Bettis Site

• August 1950 – Commencement of STR Mark I construction, National Reactor Testing Station, Idaho

• August 1951 – Award of NAUTILUS construction contract to Electric Boat Division, General Dynamics Corporation

• June 1952 – Keel plate laying of USS NAUTILUS (SSN-571)

• March 1953 – First critical operation of STR Mark I prototype plant

• January 1954 – Launching of USS NAUTILUS

• September 1954 – Commissioning of USS NAUTILUS

As can be seen from the timetable above, time was of the essence for the prototype power plant, as the keel for the operational submarine (which would house the plant designated STR Mark II) had already been laid down less than a year before the first startup of the prototype reactor. As is so vividly described in the Atlantic account, the actual prototype’s design was already well up the learning curve and the performance so satisfactory that NAUTILUS went to sea confident in its ability to perform. Of course, Admiral Rickover’s choice to build the first prototype plant as a simulated, land-locked submarine section in order to prove out not just concept but physical construction was exactly correct. A similar design process—use of an actual power plant design that could be duplicated perfectly for a production submarine—was employed for the Submarine Intermediate Reactor Mark I, built thousands of miles away to test principles for what would become USS SEAWOLF at the same time.

From the brochure "The Seawolf Story," Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory.  "In the early morning of March 20, 1954, the prototype power plant of the Seawolf was 'launched' into its location in the 225 ft. diameter steel sphere located at the West Milton Site of the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory."

From the brochure “The Seawolf Story,” Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory. “In the early morning of March 20, 1954, the prototype power plant of the Seawolf was ‘launched’ into its location in the 225 ft. diameter steel sphere located at the West Milton Site of the Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory.”

What happened to STR Mark I, later known as S1W? The plant operated for decades, as an integral part of Admiral Rickover’s system that insisted that Navy nuclear propulsion personnel obtain qualification on a land-based plant before being assigned to a nuclear powered ship or submarine. The plant finally shut down for the last time in October 1989.

It may be difficult to imagine today that photos such as we have seen were released, but several of these have actually circulated fairly widely. In fact, it would certainly appear that India took notice of the design of these early submarine prototype plants; look at the links below, and note the overall, external design of the prototype plant for the first Indian nuclear submarines.

“INS Arihant reactor to be made critical next week” (May 2013)

INS Arihant reactor goes critical (August 2013)

In a First for India, Nuclear Sub’s Reactor Activated (August 2013)

Were it not for the fact that the above-linked articles’ photos are color, one might assume the view was of the STR Mark I prototype in 1954 and not of an Indian nuclear sub prototype in 2013.

For more information:

“Nuclear Navy celebrates end of an era at Idaho Falls.” Article at INL.GOV website about the shutdown of the last operating Navy nuclear prototype at the former NRTS Naval Reactors Facility.

Photos and brochures used in this article are in Will Davis’s library.

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SavannahWillinControlRoomWill Davis is the Communications Director for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. where he also serves as historian, newsletter editor and member of the board of directors. Davis has recently been engaged by the Global America Business Institute as a consultant. He is also a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013–2016. In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy reactor operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants. Davis is temporarily managing all social media for the American Nuclear Society.

Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival 229

ferris wheel 202x201The 229th Nuclear Energy Blog Carnival has been posted at Next Big Future.

Click here to access the latest Carnival.

Each week, a new edition of the Carnival is hosted at one of the top English-language nuclear blogs. This rotating feature of nuclear “posts of the week” represents the dedication of those who are working toward a future of energy abundance, improved health, and broadened security through nuclear science and technology.

Past editions of the carnival have been hosted at Yes Vermont Yankee, Atomic Power Review, ANS Nuclear Cafe, NEI Nuclear Notes, Next Big Future, Atomic Insights, Hiroshima Syndrome, Things Worse Than Nuclear Power, EntrepreNuke, Thorium MSR and Deregulate the Atom.

This is a great collaborative effort that deserves your support.  If you have a pro-nuclear energy blog and would like to host an edition of the carnival, please contact Brain Wang at Next Big Future to get on the rotation