Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In 1957, Shippingport, along the Ohio River in far western Pennsylvania, became home to America’s first commercial nuclear power plant under President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program. Just two decades later, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) converted the Beaver County plant to a light water breeder reactor that successfully demonstrated the feasibility of using thorium and uranium 233 fuel to “breed” more fuel than it consumed in generating electricity. By 1989, after more than twenty-five years in operation, the Shippingport facility became the nation’s first successfully decommissioned commercial nuclear power plant, with the land released for unrestricted public use.

Today, as the nation contemplates the costs and benefits of various alternative energy technologies, the story of how U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman G. Rickover (1900-1986), the Westinghouse Electric Company and the Duquesne Light Company, Pittsburgh, and the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, near Pittsburgh, in West Mifflin, collaborated to construct the Shippingport Atomic Power station chronicles both the enduring vision and the substantial challenges presented by the application of nuclear energy during peacetime.

Much of the success achieved at Shippingport is directly attributed to the highly disciplined planning and execution of Admiral Rickover, who led the branch of the U.S. Navy that developed the nation’s first nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers. Born in Poland, Rickover graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1922, and served on the USS LaVallette and the USS Nevada before returning to Annapolis to pursue studies in electrical engineering. He subsequently headed the Electrical Section of the Bureau of Ships during World War II, earning the Legion of Merit for his efforts. Trained in nuclear power in 1946 at what is now the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the slight Rickover – standing 5’6″ and weighing 130 pounds – headed the Naval Reactors Branch of the Bureau of Ships. His leadership, attention to detail, and relentless drive led to him being placed in charge of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) power reactor program in 1953.

By 1948, the Westinghouse Electric Company had begun collaborating with Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois to design a nuclear reactor to power a submarine. At Rickover’s instigation in 1948, Westinghouse began constructing the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory devoted exclusively to working on nuclear projects for the Navy and destined to become Rickover’s private fiefdom. As a result of his influence, Bettis received more government funding during the following decade than any other nuclear laboratory in the country, and Westinghouse Electric emerged as an industry leader in nuclear technology.

Rickover favored a reactor design that was just being developed during his days at Oak Ridge. The reactor design called for circulating ordinary demineralized light water to serve as the moderator, heat transfer medium, and coolant for the reactor core. The prototype Mark I submarine reactor developed using this design by Bettis and Westinghouse employed a zirconium alloy cladding to protect the enriched uranium fuel elements from corrosion.

When the Mark I went critical in Idaho Falls, Idaho, on March 1, 1953, at a cost of $30 million, the Navy was contemplating building an even larger pressurized light water reactor to power an aircraft carrier. Although limited funding prevented work on the aircraft carrier going forward immediately, it was this larger version of the Mark I reactor design upon which the Shippingport commercial reactor would be based. Rickover insisted on using low-enriched uranium oxide for fuel instead of the highly enriched uranium employed in his naval vessels in order to prevent diversion of the nuclear fuel elements for use in nuclear weapons.

In December 1953, President Eisenhower delivered his “Atoms for Peace” address before the United Nations, calling for the world’s nuclear powers to stockpile uranium to be used for peaceful purposes and for the creation of an International Atomic Energy Agency to administer the program. In order for America’s civilian reactor program to succeed, AEC needed to find a willing private partner to share the costs and to demonstrate the commercial viability of the project. Several companies submitted bids, but it was Philip A. Fleger, chairman and president of Duquesne Light Company, who aggressively committed his firm to winning the bid. Despite the fact that low fuel prices and plentiful supplies of coal, natural gas, and oil in Pennsylvania meant that nuclear power did not then make economic sense, Fleger and Duquesne nonetheless agreed to commit $30 million toward the project over five years in order to advance the technology for the future.

Fleger envisioned eventually replacing coal-powered plants with clean nuclear power generation to eliminate the pall of industrial soot, smoke, and acid rain that had plagued Pittsburgh for more than a century. In exchange for Duquesne’s commitment, AEC financed 90 percent of the cost of the facility, built the reactor, and assumed all legal liability for any problems that developed. On Labor Day in 1954, President Eisenhower waved a ceremonial neutron wand over a neutron counter in Denver, Colorado, that signaled a bulldozer twelve hundred miles away in Shippingport to begin construction of the nation’s first commercial nuclear power plant.

Although AEC intended Shippingport to become operational by 1957, Great Britain’s Calder Hall Pressurized Pile Producing Power and Plutonium Plant at Seascale, Cumbria, went online on August 27, 1956, more than a year before Shippingport, earning the honor of being the world’s first large-scale commercial nuclear power plant. Meanwhile, Rickover and the Naval Reactors Branch directed all aspects of the design of the pressurized light water plant at Shippingport, and Westinghouse Electric served as the general contractor. Dravo Corporation won the contract to construct and install the reactor, and Duquesne Light chose the firm of Burns and Roe to construct the turbine generator.

Shippingport went critical on December 2, 1957, and began producing its first power at 12:30 a.m. on December 18. It reached full power at sixty-eight megawatts five days later. As a combination power plant and research reactor, Shippingport would eventually demonstrate proof of concept for commercial nuclear power in America. The next milestone occurred in 1964, when the plant was temporarily shut down to install a new reactor core that increased the electrical generating capacity to one hundred megawatts. The new core operated from February 3, 1965, to February 4, 1974, when it was shut down because of a mechanical failure in a turbine generator. DOE then converted the plant into a light water breeder reactor to test the feasibility of using naturally occurring thorium and the artificially created isotope uranium 233 to breed more fuel than was consumed by the plant while generating electricity.

The core for the breeder reactor consisted of twelve hexagonal fuel modules that together were nine feet high, eight feet in diameter and weighed ninety tons. An inner movable seed attached to a control rod was operated by an external drive. This seed consisted of fuel rods made of Zircaloy- 4 that were each 8.7 feet long and .3 inch in diameter.

Inside the rods were tiny ceramic fuel pellets a quarter-inch in diameter and one half inch long made of uranium 233 and thorium. This seed provided the neutrons for the chain reaction while the outer part of the fuel module was a blanket of fuel rods containing pellets consisting of a slightly different composition of the isotope uranium 233 and natural thorium that provided the excess neutrons required to breed new fuel.

The seed and the blanket were surrounded by a reflector to reduce neutron losses by reflecting neutrons back into the core to enhance breeding of new fuel. Instead of neutron-absorbing hafnium control rods used in the earlier reactor core, the chain reaction in the breeder reactor was controlled by moving the seed to a position level with the blanket to increase the power and withdrawing the seed from the blanket to slow or stop the chain reaction.

The breeder went critical on August 25, 1977. President Jimmy Carter dedicated it on December 2, when he wrote a message on a blackboard in the Oval Office of the White House, “Increase Light Water Breeder Reactor Power to 100 percent.” The message was transmitted to a screen in the Shippingport control room at 10:45 a.m.

After the breeder reactor was shut down in 1982, five hundred randomly selected fuel rods from the reactor core were sent to the Bettis facility in Idaho Falls, Idaho, for testing. In 1984, Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory revealed that the breeding of new fuel had worked and that the efficiency of the breeding operation was slightly better than expected. The great vision behind the breeder reactor concept was the idea that it could create more fuel than it consumed while at the same time generating electricity on a commercial scale.

Even though Shippingport proved that breeder technology worked in a commercial scale reactor, the ready availability and modest price of existing natural and enriched uranium stockpiles for conventional reactors meant that breeder technology was not an economically viable option. Although the thorium used in the breeder reactor is relatively plentiful, the uranium 233 does not occur in nature and it must be created in a pre-breeder reactor. Due to a lack of economic incentive, such pre-breeders (that can, incidentally, also produce electrical power) have yet to be built on a commercial scale in the United States.

The decommissioning of Shippingport began in 1982, after twenty-five years of operation, when the breeder reactor was formally shut down. The last of the nuclear fuel was removed from the plant on September 6, 1984, and Naval Reactors formally turned the plant over to DOE. Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory ceased having any direct role in the plant when DOE accepted a competitive bid from General Electric (GE) to dismantle the facility and clean up the site. General Electric’s original estimate for the cleanup was $79 million, but the final tally amounted to $98.6 million. GE hired Morris Knudson as the principal subcontractor among a total of thirty separate subcontractors.

Deconstruction began in 1985 with the removal of the turbine and the breeder reactor auxiliary control room that contained no radioactive contamination. This was followed by removal of more than five hundred cubic yards of asbestos insulation from the piping. This was placed in polyethylene bags and transported to Hanford, Washington, for disposal. Approximately 450,000 gallons of radioactive liquid waste was treated using the plant’s liquid filtration system and then released into the Ohio River. Residues from the ion exchangers and filter cartridges were sealed in 55-gallon drums for removal from the site. Removal of the 56,000 linear feet of contaminated piping began in 1986 by cutting the pipes apart and shipping them overland to Hanford.

The 150-ton reactor vessel-which contained 99 percent of the radioactive contamination-was first encased in three inches of concrete and then sealed inside a one-inch thick steel casing. Additional radioactive components from the plant were embedded in concrete in the interior of the pressure vessel that was removed from the breeder pit on December 14, 1988, and placed on the Paul Bunyan, a barge on the Ohio River. On February 28, 1989, the Paul Bunyan began its voyage down the Mississippi River that eventually took it through the Panama Canal and up the Pacific Coast to Benton, Washington.

After ascending the Columbia River, the material was transported overland to Hanford and buried in a forty-foot trench where radiation levels were projected to return to the normal background range within about fifty years. The remaining structures at Shippingport were demolished to a depth of three feet below grade level and thousands of cubic yards of additional concrete were removed. The site was graded, seeded for grass, and the land returned to Duquesne Light for unrestricted use. The cost of decommissioning the plant worked out to about 12 percent of the original cost of construction, providing for the first time some real world experience for projecting decommissioning costs for future nuclear plants.

Despite being extraordinarily well-managed, the history of Shippingport is not without controversy. In the 1960s, Ernest J. Sternglass, who formerly taught at the University of Pittsburgh and who had been employed by the Atomic Power Division at Westinghouse, began to question the long-term health effects of prolonged exposure to low level radiation, especially as it related to infant mortality rates. Even though most scientists who reviewed his work questioned both his methodology and his findings, he nonetheless gained a national audience by promoting many of his conclusions in such popular magazines as Esquire rather than in peer-reviewed journals.

While his early work was confined to the effects of nuclear fallout caused by weapons testing, by the 1970s he began raising concerns about discharges of water from the Shippingport plant into the Ohio River. A fact-finding committee appointed by Governor Milton J. Shapp in 1973 and headed by Secretary of Health Leonard Bachman reviewed the data and concluded there was no substantial evidence of excessive releases of radioactivity from the Shippingport Atomic Power Station. Nonetheless, the committee did recommend an expanded program of environmental monitoring near the plant, a recommendation that was implemented in 1975.

Dr. Sternglass later reported that he had discovered an increase in infant mortality in the vicinity of the Three Mile Island (TMI) Nuclear Power Station after the accident on March 28, 1979. He has also suggested that a decline in SAT scores among high school students may have been caused by their exposure to low level radiation caused by nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere. None of these claims have held up under independent scientific review, but they have contributed to lingering public anxiety over the long-term safety of commercial nuclear power plants.

The accident that occurred during the early morning hours of Wednesday, March 28, at TMI, near Middletown, Dauphin County, was triggered by the failure of an automatic relief valve to properly close. When the automated emergency cooling system on this Babcock and Wilcox designed reactor was activated to prevent the core from overheating, confusion on the part of operators in the control room caused them to manually shut down the emergency cooling system, resulting in the partial meltdown of the reactor core and release of radioactive gases into the atmosphere. The emergency cooling system was manually restarted by midday, but it was some time before the extent of the damage to the reactor core was fully understood.

In the meantime, incorrect and confusing information disseminated to the press and government authorities created unnerving levels of anxiety that prompted Governor Dick Thornburgh to order the evacuation of pregnant women and young children living within a five-mile radius of the plant. Subsequent studies concluded that the causes of the accident included poor reactor design, confusing control room console layout, inadequate operator training, and a degree of complacency among some in the nuclear power industry. The sobering reality of the TMI accident is that much of the fuel in the reactor core did melt, nearly all of the fuel rods were damaged, and the molten mass came perilously close to melting through the containment vessel.

Although this was the worst commercial nuclear power accident in the nation’s history, no one died. Even now, thirty years later, there is no evidence of elevated levels of cancer or other adverse health effects in the population living near the plant. Public concern engendered by this accident and the catastrophe at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station in Russia in 1986 contributed toward a prolonged hiatus in new licenses for commercial nuclear power plants in the United States.

In a ceremony held at the Shippingport Visitors Center on May 20, 1980, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station was designated a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Other sites recognized by the designation in Pennsylvania include Philadelphia’s Fairmount Water Works and the USS Olympia’s vertical reciprocating steam engines, the Monongahela Incline and the Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh, and Edwin L. Drake’s oil well in Titusville, Venango County (see “Barbara T. Zolli on A Drop of Oil,” by Kenneth C. Wolensky, in this edition).

Widely recognized as the father of the nuclear navy, Rickover retired as a full admiral in 1982 after sixty-three years of service. The Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory he helped create continues to operate facilities in West Mifflin, Idaho Falls, and Charleston, South Carolina, for DOE to conduct research and design work for the U.S. Naval Reactor Propulsion Program. Bechtel Bettis Inc. won the contract to operate the facility in 1999. In addition to developing the Shippingport nuclear reactor, Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory also developed the reactors for the USS Nautilus (SSN-571), the nation’s first nuclear powered submarine that was christened in 1954 and the USS Enterprise (CVN- 65), the world’s first nuclear powered aircraft carrier that was launched in 1960. Philip A. Fleger retired from Duquesne Light Company in 1968 but continued to serve as a member of the board of directors until 1981.

The rising cost of both fossil fuels and bio-fuels, and concern over increasing greenhouse gas emissions, have made commercial nuclear power an even more attractive option today than it was half a century ago. Just as requirements for carbon sequestration will undoubtedly drive up the operating costs of coal powered plants, the need for nuclear fuel reprocessing and final disposal of radioactive nuclear waste will continue to impact the cost of operating nuclear power plants.

Despite the success of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico, which stores military nuclear waste, political opposition continues to plague the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage facility in Nevada. Further, continuing popular opposition in this country to the kind of fuel reprocessing options employed by countries such as France that derives nearly 80 percent of its power from nuclear energy renders uncertain the precise size of the nuclear component of this nation’s future energy economy. The story of Shippingport nonetheless stands as an example of what is possible when a commercial nuclear power plant is well planned, well constructed, and well managed, just as the case of Three Mile Island is an example of what can happen when it is not.


A Nuclear Glossary

breeder reactor: a nuclear reactor that generates more fuel than it consumes.

critical: at or of a point at which a property or phenomenon undergoes an abrupt change, especially having enough mass to sustain a chain reaction.

critical mass: the minimum amount of radioactive material needed to undergo a nuclear chain reaction.

go critical: the point when a reactor achieves a sustained chain reaction.

hafnium: a gray tetravalent metallic element found in zirconium minerals and used in nuclear reactor control rods to absorb neutrons.

ion exchange: a reversible chemical reaction between an insoluble solid and a solution during which ions may be interchanged, used in the separation of radioactive isotopes and water decontamination.

light water breeder reactor: a reactor that breeds fuel, but at breeding ratios that are very low (although still significant).

moderator: a material such as water or graphite that is used to slow neutrons so that they can cause fission in the fissile nuclei of the fuel in the reactor.

neutron: a neutral particle found in an atomic nucleus weighing slightly more than a proton.

nuclear energy: the heat energy, or power, released by a nuclear reaction, especially by fission or fusion.

radioactive: giving off, or capable of giving off, radiant energy in the form of particles (alpha or beta radiation) or rays (gamma radiation) by the disintegration of the nuclei of atoms.

radioactive decay: the spontaneous disintegration of the atoms of certain isotopes into new isotopes, which may or may not be stable; generally the process by which an element’s nucleus changes (or “decays”) to produce a new element.

radioactive waste: material containing unusable radioactive byproducts.

rem, Roentgen Equivalent Man: the common unit for measuring human radiation doses, usually in millirems (1,000 millirems = 1 rem).

uranium 235: a rare and unstable isotope of uranium that is capable of undergoing a nuclear fission chain reaction and used for generating energy.

zirconium: a silvery-white rare metallic element with an atomic number of 40 used in nuclear reactors as a highly corrosion-resistant alloy.


A Technical Discussion of the Original Shippingport Light Water Reactor

The nuclear portion of the plant at Shippingport proved to be an especially difficult engineering challenge, requiring eighty thousand linear feet of plumbing and twenty-five thousand welds on the eighteen-inch stainless steel pipes. The pressure vessel possessed an eighteen-inch thick carbon steel wall and measured thirty-three feet tall and nine feet in diameter. The 153-ton pressure vessel was transported from its manufacturer in Tennessee on a flat bed rail car from which it was lifted into the building using a crane that was only rated for 125 tons. The reactor core was six feet high and seven feet in diameter.

Based on the seed-blanket concept, the seed consisted of 165 pounds of enriched uranium that would release neutrons into the blanket. The blanket consisted of ninety-five thousand fuel elements made of natural uranium that weighed fourteen tons.

When the enriched uranium-235 atoms absorb a neutron they split to form lighter elements, more neutrons, and alpha, beta, and gamma radiation as well as a large amount of thermal energy. Withdrawing the thirty-two neutron-absorbing hafnium control rods from the reactor core increased the number of neutrons to create a chain reaction that generated thermal energy to heat the pressurized water to 525 degrees Fahrenheit. This pressurized water then passed through a heat exchanger where the transferred heat caused clean water in an adjacent low pressure plumbing loop to form steam that drove a conventional turbine to generate electricity.

Zirconium cladding protected the fuel elements from water corrosion and Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory developed an ion exchange system that diverted the contaminated water to underground tanks where it was stored for forty-five days to allow time for radioactive decay to substantially reduce the radiation level before the water was filtered through ion exchangers to further reduce the radiation level. After separating out all soluble gases, the resulting decontaminated water could either be recycled back into the reactor core or safely discharged into the Ohio River.

Natural uranium consists almost entirely of the isotope uranium 238 with trace amounts (0.7 percent) of the fissionable istope uranium 235. The low-enriched uranium used in Shippingport’s commercial atomic reactor had been processed to increase the amount of highly fissionable uranium 235 to 4 percent of the total mass. AEC assumed full responsibility for final disposal of all radioactive wastes as well as for the spent nuclear fuel. Since the costs associated with this disposal were shouldered by the government, they never really impacted Duquesne Light’s economic bottom line.


Radiation: How Much is Normal?

One type of unit used to measure the dose of absorbed radiation received by a human being is the rem, an acronym for Roengten Equivalent Man. The amount of normal background exposure to ionizing radiation is often expressed in millirems that are each one thousandth of a rem. The average annual exposure to natural background radiation for people living in the United States is about 350 millirems. This represents exposure to a combination of cosmic radiation, solar radiation, radioactive materials contained in the earth’s crust, building materials such as bricks and dry wall, food, and radon gas seeping into homes from rocks and soil. Actual annual exposures will vary depending on location. At Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for example, the natural background is about 100 millirems per year whereas in Denver, Colorado, the natural background exposure is 700 millirems due to the higher altitude and the thinner atmosphere which is unable to filter out as much of the cosmic radiation arriving from outer space and a higher concentration of natural radioactive elements in the soil.

It has been estimated that living within a fifty mile radius of a nuclear power plant adds about .009 millirems to the natural background exposure level. Interestingly, the presence of trace amounts of uranium and thorium in fly ash coming from the smokestacks of coal-powered plants results in an additional annual radiation exposure of .03 millirems within a similar fifty mile radius. The off-site radiation exposure from the Three Mile Island accident was estimated to be about one millirem, the same as the radiation exposure received by a passenger taking a commercial airplane flight from New York to Los Angeles.


For Further Reading

Beaver, William, Nuclear Power Goes On-Line: A History of Shippingport. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Beckjord, Eric S., ed. The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary MIT Study. Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003.

Cravens, Gwyneth, Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

Simpson, John W., Nuclear Power from Underseas to Outer Space. La Grange Park, Ill.: American Nuclear Institute, 1995.

Walker, J. Samuel, Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.


For their assistance in providing technical information, the author thanks Glenn E. Van Sickle, Oxford, Chester County, an engineer who had worked at Shippingport; Scott Waitlevertch, senior representative, external nuclear affairs, of FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company, Shippingport; and Patrick S. Vitale, former scholar in residence at the Pennsylvania State Archives.


The author has developed a finding aid, “Energy Related Holdings at the Pennsylvania State Archives.”


Willis L. Shirk Jr., a resident of Harrisburg, received his BA in history from Millersville University of Pennsylvania and his MA in American Studies from the Capitol College of the Pennsylvania State University. An archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives, he writes Our Documentary Heritage, a regular department appearing in Pennsylvania Heritage.