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Rickover's Decision to prioritize pressurized light water reactor technology in the 1940s

  1. Feb 14, 2017 #1
    Does anyone know how Hyman Rickover decided to prioritize pressurized light water reactor technology in the 1940s when there were so many technologies to choose from?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 14, 2017 #2


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  4. Feb 14, 2017 #3


    Staff: Mentor

  5. Feb 14, 2017 #4


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    There were not 'so many technologies' available for nuclear power or propulsion in the 1940s. Many alternative nuclear technologies were explored in the 1950s, and many technologies are not suitable for power reactors.

    There was one trial for a sodium power reactor in the submarine, Seawolf, SSN-575.
    See the section on comparing to Nautilus. There was the basic incompatibility of sodium and water in the heat exchanger, when pipes cracked. There was the matter of activated Na-24, which has a short half-life and produces an energetic gamma ray (1.369 MeV). That lead to a problem of Cerenkov radiation in the seawater nearest the reactor and primary cooling system.
  6. Feb 14, 2017 #5


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    I agree with the sole commenter of the article; "Wow, are you ever WRONG! ... You need to get your facts straight before letting your anti-nuclear fears dribble from your brain."

    per wiki "As of 2003, and since the first US nuclear-powered submarine (USS Nautilus), the United States Navy had logged over 6,200 “reactor years” with no radiological accidents."

    I can't find the above wording in the reference they listed below, so I'm guessing the author may have interpolated it from the following;
    Kind of reassuring.
  7. Feb 15, 2017 #6
    All the major nuclear reactor technologies with the exception of molten salt were conceived at Argonne during the Manhattan Project, although they weren't necessarily constructed and tested by the time Rickover had to make his decision.

    Heavy water technology would definitely have been an alternative option available. Metal cooled reactors were too, and one was of course chosen for Seawolf. Perhaps a different metal such as lead could have been considered as well (the Alfa class submarines of the Soviet Union featured lead cooled reactors and also much lighter displacements than Seawolf and Nautilus).

    I'm unsure of the situation in the late 1940s, but I know that in the 1950s there was a lot of interest in organically cooled reactors. In addition to organic coolant offering superior moderation to light water, organically cooled reactors also operate at much lower pressures and a high negative temperature coefficient. Importantly for submarines, they even feature xenon override capability to allow for restart at any time.

    I've even found reference to a third reactor contract being signed for an Allis Chalmers gas cooled naval propulsion reactor in 1948, around the same time as the Westinghouse pressurized light water reactor and the General Electric sodium cooled reactor contracts. The Allis Chalmers contract was canceled shortly after and I haven't been able to find more information on it, but it shows that there might have been more going on with that process. I'm not sure why a gas cooled reactor would be considered for a submarine.
  8. Feb 16, 2017 #7
    This may be beyond the scope of this forum (being more of a nuclear history question), but is there any information on who else was in the delegation to Oak Ridge and how many of them were submarine officers vs. how many were surface ship officers? Were there any other officers with a prominent role in the early United States Navy program, particularly between the 1940s and the early 1960s (when Rickover was at the traditional retirement age from the Navy)?
  9. Feb 18, 2017 #8


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    Please provide a reference or source to substantiate that claim.

    Not all major nuclear technologies were conceived during the Manhattan project, nor were all but the molten salt conceived by the MetLab or Argonne National Lab. From one of my books on nuclear technology, it is stated that, "Conceptual studies were initiated at Oak Ridge in 1944 on a high-temperature gas-cooled power reactor concept that was suggested by Farrington Daniels." Subsequently, one gas-cooled reactor was constructed at Oak Ridge during WWII and a second gas-cooled reactor was constructed at Brookhaven National Lab shortly after the war. Certainly that was during the Manhattan project, but not at the Met Lab.
    Ref: Walter H. Zinn, Frank K. Pittman, John F. Hogerton, "Nuclear Power, U.S.A., McGraw-Hill Book Company, McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1964

    In the November 1952 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, one can read the transcript of an interview with Dr. Lawrence Hafstad, director of AEC's Division of Reactor Development. In response to the question, "When did the development of power reactors and power-production reactors begin?", Hafstad indicates that "some experimental work was done on power problems in the late stages of the war and early in 1946." Hafstad cites Farrington's work at Oak Ridge "for a power reactor, which was quest a straightforward, direct approach to the problem. It soon became clear however that we needed to know a lot more about the behavior of various material under the unusual conditions of stress which existed in a reactor." Hafstad subsequently cites the Canadian heavy-water reactor at Chalk River, which was based on a design from Argonne. Breeder concepts were pursued by Argonne and Knolls (GE), but it seems after the war. Hafstad concludes his response with "A third major element in that program was teh development of a reactor for submarine propulsion. The Navy was instrumental in starting investigations toward nuclear propulsion at Oak Ridge and at General Electric in Schenectady. In 1948, the Oak Ridge project was transferred to Argonne and became the Submarine Thermal Reactor project. The work at Schenectady eventually expanded into the Submarine Intermediate Reactor project." Reprinted from Chemical and Engineering News, "The Government Reactor Program," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol 8, No. 8, Nov 1952, pp. 283-286, 292

    The ANL website confirms that the transfer of technology from Oak Ridge to Argonne in 1948 where Westinghouse staff worked with Argonne staff. The work began after the Manhattan project and was originally at Oak Ridge.

    The focus of the Manhattan Project (which concluded December 31, 1946) was the production of Pu-239 in the production reactors at Hanford. They were large graphite moderated reactors, not suitable for propulsion, and they did not produce electricity. B reactor was first in 1944, followed by D reactor in 1944, then F reactor in 1945, and H reactor in 1949. Others followed in the 1950s. B, D, and F reactors were designed by DuPont, while H reactor was designed by GE.
    Ref: http://ecology.pnnl.gov/library/History/Hanford-History-All.pdf
    Ref: See AEC, 1970 (osti) reference below

    The US Government's Metallurgical Laboratory, the precursor to Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), did design reactors. There were a number of test reactors.


    https://www.osti.gov/scitech/servlets/purl/4115425 (See page 21 for the list of Production reactors.)
    See page 22-23 for submarines and ships with naval reactors. Various other tables have different types of nuclear experiments, experimental and research reactors, and commercial power reactors. Startup dates (years) and in some cases shutdown dates are provided.

    From the PNNL reference:
    "The Manhattan Project had its inception in the Advisory Committee on Uranium that was established by President Franklin Roosevelt in October 1939 to pursue scientific uranium research. Roosevelt’s approval of the committee was based on his belief that the United States could not take the risk of allowing Hitler and Nazi Germany to unilaterally gain possession of atomic bombs. While over the next couple of years considerable research on the feasibility of the production of a uranium or plutonium bomb took place, experiments were restricted to laboratory studies until the United States entered the Second World War. Soon after Pearl Harbor, the Advisory Committee on Uranium decided to sponsor an intensiveresearch program on plutonium. The research contract was placed with the Metallurgical Laboratory (Met Lab) of the University of Chicago . . . the purpose of this research project was to develop the knowledge to design, build, and operate a plant for the conversion of uranium into plutonium . . . [and] recommended that the Army Corps of Engineers carry out the construction work for such a plant (DOE 1997b, p. 5.5)."

    The MetLab became the Argonne National Laboratory.

    And from http://web.ornl.gov/info/ornlreview/rev25-34/foreword.shtml [Broken]
    ONRL history - http://web.ornl.gov/info/ornlreview/rev25-34/features.shtml [Broken]

    In Nuclear Power, U.S.A., there is reference to the Experimental Gas-Cooled Reactor (EGCR), which was designed by Kaiser Engineers and Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company. The fuel elements and certain other components were developed by ORNL. It was under construction as of 1964, but a footnote in the AEC (1970) reference indicates "The EGCR project was terminated in January 1966 prior to the completion of construction." Another project mentioned in the 1964 reference is the HTGR designed by the General Atomic Division of General Dynamics Corporation and constructed as Unit 1 at Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station.

    The UK Magnox and AGR reactors were certainly not conceived during the Manhattan Project, nor were they conceived in the US.

    Another major technology, Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) technology, was first demonstrated by Argonne West at the NTRS in 1953-1954. Seth Untermyer
    "In 1952, Samuel Untermyer suggested that direct boiling reactors might be practical. Previous to this time it had been thought that any bubble formation in the core would result in nuclear instabilities. Untermyer suggested that steam formation would actually help stabilize the reaction. Accordingly, Argonne National Laboratory designed, built, and operated a series of experimental boiling water reactors on the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho. These reactors were known as the BORAX (Boiling Reactor Experiment) series."

    The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (McMahon Act) was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman on August 1, 1946, it went into effect on January 1, 1947. The Act established the Atomic Energy Commission, which assumed responsibility for nuclear energy from the wartime Manhattan Project.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 8, 2017
  10. Feb 18, 2017 #9
    Astronuc, thank you for replying. I've done a lot of research on this topic, although from the policy perspective. To clarify my statement, all of the reactor technologies researched by the United States in the 1950s apart from molten salt were conceived of by the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory during the Manhattan Project (page 374 of MacPherson, H.G. “Molten salt reactor adventure, the.” Nuclear Science and Engineering, Vol. 90 (1985): 374-380.) The Manhattan Project effort built gas and water cooled plutonium production piles. The Nautilus reactor was the first power reactor to put its power to practical use in 1954 (although arguably the Obninsk reactor in the Soviet Union has a claim, being a few months earlier), and the United Kingdom achieved several firsts of its own with the dual purpose Magnox units at Calder Hall in 1956.

    It was also during the Manhattan Project that the breeder reactor concept was conceived of, in addition to Clementine and EBR-I (page 89 of Cochran, Thomas B., Feiveson, Harold A., and von Hippe, Frank. “Fast Reactor Development in the United States.” In Fast breeder reactor programs: history and status, edited by the International Panel on Fissile Materials (2010): 89-112.)

    I didn't know that the boiling water concept had a fairly late origin, thank you for those links. Such a design would obviously have some issues with power density relative to a pressurized water design as well as radioactive contamination of the turbines (definitely not desirable on a ship, especially a military submarine), but is there anything else that has kept the technology from being used on submarines and other vessels since then?
  11. Mar 11, 2017 #10


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    An Account of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Thirteen Nuclear Reactors
    Code (Text):
    AIRCRAFT NUCLEAR PROPULSION PROGRAM............................ 24
      Aircraft Reactor Experiment Development...................... 24
      ARE Operation................................................ 26
    MOLTEN-SALT REACTOR EXPERIMENT................................. 29
  12. Mar 11, 2017 #11


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    There is a big problem if the vessel heels over or turns upside down. Of course the steam generators in PWRs have the same problem. I've asked several navy buddies how far they are allowed to heel over, but of course the answer is "classified".
  13. Mar 11, 2017 #12


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    The issue with a boiling water reactor is the boiling moderator, which complicates reactivity control. Commercial BWRs have control rods inserted from the bottom of the core, which is single phase (liquid) and it has higher reactivity worth with respect to fuel and control blades. Above the core are moisture separators and steam dryers, so control blades could not be inserted from the top since the drive mechanisms wouldn't be compatible with the steam conditioning hardware.

    They other key issue would be the need to perform during pitch and roll. If the core were to pitch or roll, the moderation and hence power distribution would be asymmetric in the core, which could potentially cause failure of the fuel/core. With a PWR, there is no voiding to skew the moderation.
  14. Mar 12, 2017 #13


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    That's all true. The problem in the PWR case is in the secondary side of the heat exchangers.
  15. Mar 12, 2017 #14

    jim hardy

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    Aha ! That' why the boilers are so tall and skinny instead of traditional horizontal drums.

    Yankee Rowe looked like a submarine's steam plant transplanted to an inland hillside and wrapped inside a ball.

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