APR: your source for nuclear news and analysis since April 16, 2010

Friday, February 10, 2012

Vogtle COL approval vote indicates perspective on "nuclear renaissance"

Quite a number of people, including this author, have used the term "nuclear renaissance" to indicate the present tide that appears to lead to at least six new nuclear plants within the decade at a total of three sites, and the term is in fairly wide use. Some people not aware of the overall history of nuclear energy in the United States may wonder how this term really applies. To fill in that gap, I hereby present a VERY truncated history of commercial nuclear energy in this country, with a specific focus on the rundown in the mid-70's. This will help to give perspective on just what was lost in this country when the nuclear industry infrastructure ran down.


Prior to National Nuclear Science Week, many sites gave details on the first nuclear reactor to operate anywhere - this being the CP-1 pile near Chicago in 1942. After this, a number of military Manhattan Project weapons-production reactors were built and programs were begun right after the end of the Second World War to develop nuclear energy as a real, useful tool.

The first and best known program to accomplish this result was that of the Navy. The Atomic Energy Commission (and with it, later, a special branch of the US Navy's engineering bureau known as the Division of Naval Reactors, later NAVSEA08) launched work on two different designs with the hope that one would yield fruit.

One was Project Wizard - a pressurized water cooled reactor whose design and construction were assigned, with AEC co-operation, to Westinghouse Electric.

The other was Project Genie. This program was originally (according to notes here in the APR collection from Admiral Hyman Rickover, head of the Design Branch of the AEC and Chief of the Navy's nuclear engineering staff and bureau) conceived as a civilian powerplant project using a sodium cooled reactor. When this program ran into financial trouble, it was militarized and handed over to the Navy for completion as a submarine power plant. The project was awarded to General Electric.

History is clear on the outcome; the Westinghouse plant worked so well that it was surprising, while the GE plant failed quite badly due to problems inherent in the physical design and construction of the plant which were intractable. The Westinghouse plant was first started up in March 1953; a copy of this plant was installed in the submarine USS Nautilus, the first nuclear powered vessel of any kind in the world; the submarine went to sea in January 1955. This marks the beginning of the use of nuclear energy to provide useful power in the United States.

While many military programs developed rapidly, another step was required to move nuclear energy into civilian, commercial power generating operation. This step was made when a project to power a nuclear powered aircraft carrier for the Navy was cancelled and turned into a civilian project (the reverse of the GE sodium cooled plant's process.) This plant, originally known as the CVR project, became the Shippingport Atomic Power Station. The project was originally known as the PWR project (for Pressurized Water Reactor) and was authorized by the AEC in July, 1953 - just a short time after the Nautilus' prototype plant first became operational.

At the same time, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (a joint Senate-House affair) made a request to the AEC for details on a five year atomic energy development program. The AEC responded early the next year with a plan.

In another coincidence, in the same month that the Nautilus went to sea (January, 1955) the AEC announced its Power Demonstration Reactor Program. This program was essentially a program to encourage the construction of civilian nuclear plants of different technologies, with government assistance in many ways; nuclear energy was not yet economical when compared with other forms of energy generation, and only through development could it reach its potential. The AEC, seeing that few companies would likely risk only their own capital, provided assistance in the funding of new plants.


Shippingport was the responsibility of Westinghouse, already experienced with the Nautilus prototype plant (S1W) and the Nautilus' plant itself (S2W.) This plant was built with government funding for the nuclear portion, and private funding for the conventional (turbine generator, auxiliaries, switchyard, etc) portion. This would set the pattern for a number of Demonstration plants to come over the next decade.

At the same time, General Electric decided to develop boiling water reactors on its own with no government support. This project then developed over time into what would become the first totally privately funded nuclear station in the United States - Dresden Nuclear Generating Station - and it was running, for a while, neck and neck with Shippingport.

Shippingport Atomic Power Station was completed and placed in commercial service in December, 1957, marking the first operation of the first large dedicated commercial nuclear power station in the United States. Dresden Nuclear Generating Station was first started up in late 1959. The era of commercial nuclear electric generation in the United States was underway.


The AEC's Power Demonstration Reactor Program had several rounds of bidding and contract award. In the first round, large commercial stations were intended with the AEC helping with development and with fuel costs. This resulted in three plants: Yankee Atomic Electric (Westinghouse PWR plant), Enrico Fermi Atomic Power Station (consortium designed sodium cooled fast breeder reactor), and the Hallam Nuclear Power Facility (Atomics International sodium cooled graphite moderated reactor plant as part of the Sheldon Station.)

The second round was aimed at encouraging small, rural power stations with advanced reactors, and with the AEC actually owning the reactor for a specified time period. The results were the Piqua Nuclear Power Facility (organic cooled and moderated reactor, by Atomics International), The Elk River Reactor (indirect cycle boiling water reactor, by ACF - later taken over by Allis-Chalmers), the BONUS project (boiling water reactor with direct nuclear superheat - General Nuclear Engineering, later taken over by Combustion Engineering), and the Lacrosse Reactor (improved cycle boiling water reactor, Allis-Chalmers.)

The third round focused again mostly on large generating stations, with private utility participation. The third round included the Carolinas-Virginia Tube Reactor (Westinghouse heavy water moderated tube type pressurized water reactor), Big Rock Point (GE BWR plant based on Dresden), Pathfinder (Allis-Chalmers integral nuclear superheat BWR plant), and the HTGR project (General Atomics gas cooled reactor, eventually built as Peach Bottom.)

Above, detail from commemorative tray showing the CVTR plant and listing project participants.

In 1960, the AEC announced a further "Ten Year Program" to make nuclear energy profitable, as well as to advance further reactor technologies. With all of the above mentioned programs in place, and the three rounds of PDRP plants being planned, built and operated, the true spread of nuclear energy around the country had begun.


The years at the end of the 50's and during the beginning of the 60's saw relatively few new nuclear plants ordered per year. In 1958, three were ordered; in 1959, one. None was ordered in 1960 or 1961; in 1962, two were ordered. Five were ordered in 1963 (although one, Malibu, was never built) but none in 1964.

1965 was the year that saw the beginning of the real flood of nuclear plant orders. In that year, seven nuclear stations were ordered - and all of them were large, central station types with outputs in the high end of the range which at that time was in the hundreds of megawatts. From this point on, orders would skyrocket as indicated below.

1966: 20 plants ordered
1967: 31 plants ordered
1968: 17 plants ordered
1969: 7 plants ordered
1970: 14 plants ordered
1971: 18 plants ordered (through 9/30/71)

Source for the data immediately above is AEC publication "The Nuclear Industry - 1969" and a later version of the same annual, titled "The Nuclear Industry - 1971" which has publication number WASH-1174-71.

With this flood of new orders, Westinghouse and General Electric were joined as major reactor vendors by Babcock & Wilcox and also by Combustion Engineering who began to receive orders for commercial PWR plants of their own designs in 1966. (Babcock & Wilcox built one commercial plant, Indian Point 1, with contract awarded in 1955 and also the plant for the nuclear ship NS Savannah; Combustion Engineering was the reactor vendor for one prototype and one parallel seagoing small submarine nuclear plant for the USS Tullibee - so both had prior experience as reactor vendors, in addition to being involved as subcontractors in reactor manufacturing since nearly the beginning.)

The first two commercial plants ordered from Combustion Engineering were Ft. Calhoun and Palisades. Above we see Palisades' containment building under construction.


The economics of nuclear plants have very widely been discussed, both back during the 70's at which point we find our discussion, and today during the new nuclear renaissance. The fact of the matter is that economic considerations led to a shutoff of orders for new nuclear plants in 1978. Perhaps of greater interest is the incredible number of plants ordered, and on many of which construction began but which was never finished. According to "The Second Nuclear Era," between this order cutoff time period in 1978 and 1983 when that important volume was published, 58 reactors in some part of the ordering and/or construction process were cancelled.

This does not however give the full picture as cancellations (as well as some construction) did continue. According to a study performed by the Energy Information Administration in 1983, over half the total nuclear generating capacity that had ever been ordered in the United States had already been cancelled. This comprised 100 reactor plants. Several factors contributed to the cancellations, as found by the report:

-Lower electric demand than had previously been predicted
-Problems with financing construction of the plants
-Loss of the cost advantage of nuclear energy in some locations
-Regulatory constraints / complications / costs
-Failure of the State government to allow operation.

The fourth of these is actually highly significant, because it includes very many changes made as a result of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.


The TMI accident in 1979 caused an abrupt halt in NRC licensing (NRC had taken over from the old AEC) of new plants, and the initial result was a great deal of new safety problem identification and operator retraining. What really damaged the position of many utilities constructing plants was the incredible delay forced by the NRC until the perceived required fixes in the regulatory and operating frameworks could be identified, examined and implemented.

According to the official history of Enrico Fermi Atomic Power Plant - Unit 2, by Detroit Edison, the number of binding industry and regulatory rules covering reactor plant design and construction increased (in number only) from four in 1970 to 108 in 1973, to 541 in 1977 and to almost 2000 in 1982 (post TMI accident inclusions.) This drove engineering costs for Fermi-2 up from about $27 million in 1973 to about $275 million in 1983.

It is clear that the delays and the increases in cost and changes in plant construction required by TMI killed many projects. No help was given by increasing EPA regulations that added cooling towers to plants and required other changes as well. All of this, coupled with lower load growth during the early 1980's than had been predicted, and economic slowdowns, explains the massive nuclear generating plant cancellations which occurred through the 70's and 80's.

Above, Midland 1 and 2. Ordered by Consumers Power (Michigan) in 1968; major contractor problems, cost overruns, public outcry led to the plants never being completed. Both cancelled in the mid-1980's.

By the end of 1985, the total number of cancellations reached 113. More were to follow, but at this point the majority of the cancellation bloodbath was over. A number of nuclear plants continued to be constructed, some rapidly and some not so. The last of the uncancelled plants to be completed was Watts Bar 1, which entered commercial operation in 1996. In terms of plants eventually completed, the last year in which plants were ordered and then eventually ever completed was 1973. Any plant ordered in 1974 or later was never completed. This then gives us a period from 1973 until this new "nuclear renaissance" during which no new nuclear plants were ordered; it also gives us a period from 1996 until a few years from now when Vogtle 3 and 4 go on line that is the gap between startups of newly finished nuclear plants in the United States.

Ordered in 1973 and eventually all completed were the three reactor plants of Palo Verde. These were the last Combustion Engineering plants completed, and are the only CE System 80 plants (the last word in CE PWR plant design) ever completed.

I hope this brief, and for many probably overly simplistic, timeline will help to indicate the ebb and flow of nuclear plant ordering overall in the US. So much misreporting in the press over the last 48 hours has been noted by this author that this post seems warranted. I hope it is put to good use by the major media.

9:40 PM Eastern Friday February 10, 2012


  1. Thanks very much Will. An excellent retrospective.

    I will just mention Watts Bar 2, which should be complete next year.

  2. Hahahaha, at the above comment!!!! You silly fuckers! Your industry will go broke trying! I don't even have to wait for one of your ancient accident prone reactors to fail. The financial climate will sink you!! You have to know that extreem cost overuns and delays will not attract financing, especially as gas gets cheaper and CHEAPER! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!


    Watts Bar 2 schedule pushed back
    07 February 2012

    The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has said that it is ‘experiencing challenges’ with the cost and schedule for completion of its Watts Bar 2 nuclear power plant. The revised completion date for the plant may extend beyond 2013 and the costs are expected to ‘significantly exceed’ TVA’s previous estimate of $2.5 billion.

    In a filing to the Securities and Exchange commission TVA said that lower productivity has slowed the pace of construction at Watts Bar 2. TVA also said it anticipates regulatory considerations resulting from the US nuclear industry response to the Fukushima accident, as well as other causes, will result in additional costs being incurred.

  3. I have published the above comment to show all of you out there a couple of things.

    First, the leading edge of the anti-nuclear fringe is populated almost wholly with idiots of the caliber you are seeing indicated by the nature of that comment.

    Second, whoever this gutless thing is refuses to use his real name on internet posts and e-mails and instead hides behind a name from the cartoon "King of the Hill," which itself is not among the most high-brow presentations available to the general population.

    You, "Shackleford," will now never have the opportunity to have another comment published on this blog. And that's not censorship- if you want to rant uncontrolled then go launch your own website. And good luck with that.

    Oh.. one more thing. It's called spell check. You might want to look into that when you're trying to discuss things with educated people.

    1. Mr. Davis, I am really glad you have published this so that everyone can experience the brutality against those who choose to be pro-nuclear. I work from time to time in the shell of what used to be a Combustion Engineering System 80 plant and it is a constant reminder of what could have been of cheap and efficient electricity production in the US.

  4. @Mark: You're quite welcome, and thanks for the comment. As an aside, I see that good ol' "Rusty Shackleford" tried to send another comment, which (unsurprisingly) went into the spam folder. I deleted it without reading it.