Retrotechtacular: Head Start On Tomorrow

In the 1950s and 1960s, the prospects for a future powered by nuclear energy were bright. There had been accidents at nuclear reactors, but they had not penetrated the public consciousness, or had conveniently happened far away. This was the age of “Too cheap to meter“, and The Jetsons, in which a future driven by technologies as yet undreamed of would free mankind from its problems. Names like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were unheard of, and it seemed that nuclear reactors would become the miracle power source for the second half of the twentieth century and beyond.

The first generation of nuclear power stations were thus accompanied by extremely optimistic public relations and news coverage. At the opening of the world’s first industrial-scale nuclear power station at Calder Hall, UK in 1956, the [Queen] gave a speech in which she praised it as for the common good of the community, and on the other side of the Atlantic the American nuclear industry commissioned slick public relations films to promote their work. Such a film is the subject of this piece, and though unlike the British they could not muster a monarch, had they but known it at the time they did employ the services of a President.

The Big Rock Point nuclear power plant was completed in 1962 on the shores of Lake Michigan. Its owners, Consumers Power Company, were proud of their new facility, and commissioned a short film about it. The reactor had been supplied by General Electric, and fronting the film was General Electric’s established spokesman and host of their General Electric Theater TV show, the Hollywood actor and future President [Ronald Reagan].

The film below the break starts by explaining nuclear power as a new heat source powering a conventional steam-driven generator, and stresses the safety aspect of reactor control rods. We are then treated to a fascinating view of the assembly of an early-1960s nuclear reactor, starting with the arrival of the pressure vessel and showing the assemblies within it that held the fuel and control rods. Fuel rods are shown at their factory in California, and being loaded onto a truck to be shipped across the continent, seemingly without the massive security that would nowadays accompany such an undertaking. The rods are loaded and the reactor is started, as [Reagan] puts it: “The atom has been put to work, on schedule”.

The film captures well the optimism of the age, and it is obvious that there has been no need to consider the plant’s waste products or decommissioning costs when its $27m price is quoted. The plant was eventually shut down in 1997, and the site was decommissioned over the next decade. You can see pictures courtesy of attentive American rail enthusiasts, of the reactor vessel on a rail car as it heads for a nuclear waste containment site in South Carolina.

This hasn’t been our first expedition into early nuclear power publicity, we’ve previously shown you a General Electric film from 1952. If the inner workings of nuclear plants are your thing, we’d probably better also point you at a series of detailed cutaway diagrams of reactors from around the world.

Big Rock Point picture:  Federal Government of the United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

64 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Head Start On Tomorrow

  1. Its too bad that so many equate the old unsafe Mk1 and Mk2 designs (Fukushima, Three Mile, Etc) with modern reactors (now Mk7) that are worlds apart in safety. The new designs feature passive convection cooling and a whole host of other safety measures that would have prevented disasters like Fukushima. But because we’re scared we’d rather continue to run old unsafe reactors instead of build new safe ones that would also help limit global climate change.

    1. Completely agree with these comments.
      Some people think solar does less harm to the environment and is more ‘sustainable’ than nuclear as well. Will society ever evolve enough to adopt a data driven policy system? This emotional system sucks. Kind of tired of Trump/Clinton results.

        1. You say that as if coal is the only other option. Why not completely replace (where we can) our fossil fuel power supplies with renewable sources and supplement everywhere we can’t? Nuclear power still exists and we can continue to work on the disposal problem instead of doing a headlong rush into another environmental disaster.

          1. The root of the fetish with “renewable” energy is the Green ideal of minimizing man’s impact on nature. This is borne out by the fact that the only practical “renewable” source of energy, hydroelectric, is widely opposed by the Green movement for interfering with “free-flowing rivers.” That movement prizes solar and wind despite their horrendous track record for ideological, ultimately religious reasons: the idea of a society only relying on the sun and the wind is congenial to their ideal of a world in which man tiptoes on the planet. If we cast aside the Green religion, “renewable energy” is false ideal that has no place in a rational discussion of energy. The only question that matters about energy is: what sources of energy will best advance human life now and in the relevant future (not 5 billion years)?

            There is no disposal problem with nuclear, the technologies to deal with spent fuel are well known, and widely practiced outside the U.S. by countries generate far greater percentage of their electricity with fission and are far smaller in size than the U.S. This is not a huge secret, or difficult to find reference to, and on top of which the absolute hazards from solid spent fuel is far, far less than the waste streams from PV manufacturing and mining the rare earth minerals that are needed for wind. Add to these the hazards that large scale grid-level storage represent that will need staggering amounts of highly reactive chemicals and the environmental benefits of renewables vanish.

            An student of history has seen the pattern repeated, and which precedes the decline and eventual fall of most civilized societies. We hold in faltering hands the keys to immense treasures, yet lack the will and foresight to see that and understand it and the implications of throwing it away. We have within our grasp a source of energy that will supply our needs into the foreseeable future, with very little environmental degradation, and a very high level of safety, security, and reliability, yet we turn our backs on it and drive it from these shores. Instead we retreat to 18th century power sources (fossil fuel combustion), or even more ancient and unreliable technologies (wind power and solar). We are throwing away the future in favor of the past, and the inevitable result will be a regression in technological level and a concurrent retreat in standard of living and personal well-being.

          2. Wow was the response tough to read through. Next time, do me a favor and just get right to the point. The solutions to the need for rare earth minerals and highly reactive chemicals that are needed for these power sources are being worked on, just like the issue of disposal for Nuclear waste. At least if this article is to be believed. Which was updated this year. That article states that 400,000 tonnes of used fuel is expected to be produced in a twenty year period (2010-2030). The article currently states that the reprocessing capacity is only at 4,500 tonnes per year. Lets assume that the capacity does not increase from now to 2030 (and has been the same since 2010), as well as that we won’t overshoot the 400,000 mark. That means that by 2030 they will have reprocessed 90,000 tonnes of the 400,000 total used fuel. So don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Nuclear is a no go, I just don’t think it’s as cut an dry as some of you like to make it sound. Nuclear power is still very much a work in progress and not without its comparable drawbacks.

          3. So what? Are you seriously suggesting that it is trivial to build out infrastructure to deal with the waste streams from PV and rare earth refinement, but far too hard to do the same with reprocessing? Anyway, reprocessing is just one option, reburning spent fuel in reactors with high neutron-efficiency, building molten salt reactors that don’t produce as much waste to begin with, or even full sequestration of spent fuel without reprocessing are all options

          4. Maybe we should be focussing on how we can reduce our consumption by choosing to be more aware of our lifestyles and choices rather than looking for a cheap perpetual alternative fuel source.

            I’d like to see the focus be on maximizing energy efficiency and eliminating wasted energy.

            Instead guys like Al Gore get awards for his talk on “An Inconvenient Truth” on how we are destroying the planet yet he flies around burning jet fuel in private jets and lives in giant empty McMansions that consume/waste more energy then several “normal” households.

            Putting a solar panel on a 10,000 sq.ft. two person occupied home doesn’t make the house energy efficient or eco friendly.

          5. Reducing energy use at the consumer-level may not be effective if it means greater energy expenditures upstream. Meanwhile, recycling some materials like metals and glass reduce pollution in the form of the waste stream from producing them from ores, but at the cost of higher energy usage.

            Then there is Jevons paradox to consider: environmentalists generally assume that efficiency gains will lower resource consumption, but when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used (reducing the amount necessary for any one individual use), the total rate of consumption of that resource tends to rise globally because of increasing demand.

          6. I don’t know why it is you think that Nuclear power doesn’t have an issue with the use of rare elements or waste, or that it could be any worse than those used in renewable energy. For example, there’s been progress with PV to move away from rare earth elements. Not so much with Nuclear. Lets also not forget that with current technology, there is not enough fissile material on this planet to make Nuclear a long term option. Again, my argument is only that Nuclear is not the only “true” way and Coal is not the only other option (per your original comment).

          7. The statement there is insufficient nuclear fuel is in error, there is more than enough uranium from known resources to last several hundred years, enough thorium to last several thousand years, and fuel breeding cycles are available right now that can supply and unlimited amount of fuel for and unlimited amount of time. There is no credible source that can show evidence to the contrary.

          8. Thorium still needs a fissile material to get it started, so to say. And even then there is still the issue of the rare earth elements needed for the containment vessel. I’ve seen 80 to 230 year estimates for the amount of Uranium we have left for Nuclear power. I haven’t found anything for “several hundred years” which still wouldn’t be considered long term. Also, current technology still makes breeders too expensive to be useful. I’ll post my resources below. I wouldn’t mind seeing yours.

          9. First, the extraction of uranium from seawater would make available 4.5 billion metric tons of uranium—a 60,000-year supply at present rates. Second, fuel-recycling fast-breeder reactors, which generate more fuel than they consume, would use less than 1 percent of the uranium needed for current LWRs. Breeder reactors could match today’s nuclear output for 30,000 years using only the NEA-estimated supplies.


            Your economic argument is just silly – in developing every source of energy the least expensive ones are exploited first, as they are exhausted, more expensive ones are brought on line. No one would have considered working the Tar Sands when sweet crudel was $3.00 a barrel as it was in 1964.

            Yes, seawater extraction and breeding are not economic at present, but they are established technologies that can be brought into play making any assertion that we must abandon this technology because there is not enough fuel for a major nuclear build out ludacris.

      1. Look at the Traveling-Wave Reactor design, its primary fuel is what is considered ‘spent’ nuclear fuel with a small amount of enriched Uranium or, in some designs, a much smaller amount of weapons-grade plutonium (There is a bunch of that stuff hanging around decaying uselessly after decommissioning weapons). It is expected to have a capacity of 35-45 MW and run for 75+ years.

        The reactor vessel is kept at a a constant level of vacuum, reducing the neutron absorption ability of the moderator, at which level the reactor itself is able to achieve criticality. If too much heat is generated, pressure increases in the vessel and the moderator becomes much more effective and reduces the number of reactions and thus brings the reactor back down to its operational levels. This also occurs if the reactor vessel is breached in any way, it cannot be re-started and the moderator solidifies turning the whole thing into a big 50-ton pile of useless metal. The reactor will also enter this inert state at the end of its life and the vessel itself becomes an almost indestructible cask for whatever is left of the fuel (The vessel can withstand anything shy of a nuclear weapon detonating right next to it).

        The intention behind the reactor (other than to re-use ‘spent’ fuel), is to build a power generating device that would buried underneath a fresh skyscraper going up, provide electrical service for the life of the building, at which point the building would be taken down and the spent reactor removed. The reactor is designed so that even if a fully-loaded 100+ floor building were to come down on top of it, the worst that would happen is that it renders itself inert and safe for disposal. The only servicing it would need would be to install it initially, periodic maintenance of the electrical generation/turbine stage, and then disposal of the vessel when spent.

        Even then, there are research projects on constructing low efficiency pool reactors that would use fuel that is too weak for even a TWR design to use. The purpose would be for generation of Hydrogen isotopes for use in fusion reactor and to produce heavier isotopes for use in medical and industrial applications.

        1. the worlds space agencies would love some of all that plutonium floating around, as far as i know there is a quite limited amount of plutonium unspoken for (true if we dismantled a few weapons we could dramatically increase supply)

          1. Weapons-grade Plutonium is Pu-239, the type used in RTGs is Pu-238 they do not have the same properties and they are produced from very different decay chains. Plutonium in spent fuel, so called reactor grade Plutonium, contains too much Pu-240 to be of use in either service.

  2. The early developers of nuclear power realized that one of its great advantages is that its waste problem is trivial. Now we find that many power plants that should have been nuclear have been coal-fired, because people were afraid of “nuclear waste.”

    “Nuclear waste” is a misnomer for an extremely valuable material made up of three components: a) partially used fuel that will be recycled in breeder reactors to generate more fuel in the very process of generating electricity; b) fission products worth billions of dollars, that will be recovered; and c) a very small amount of material that has no further useand can be easily and cheaply sequestered indefinitely.

    1. Go and read a bit about waste disposal at Yucca Mountain :), it is not trivial problem, and is something that id still not solved today. The amounts are not that small, nor they go away or degrade fast enough.

        1. That article states that 400,000 tonnes of used fuel is expected to be produced in a twenty year period (2010-2030). The article currently states the the reprocessing capacity is only at 4,500 tonnes per year. Lets assume that the capacity does not increase from now to 2030, as well as that we won’t overshoot the 400,000 mark. That means that by 2030 they will have reprocessed 90,000 tonnes of the 400,000 total used fuel. So it looks to me like if we were to ramp up Nuclear power production then we’d need to really hit it hard with the reprocessing because we’re way behind.

          1. @RW: I don’t know anything about CANDU but if Wikipedia is to be believed then the CANDU can use reprocessed fuel but waste fuel still has to be reprocessed somewhere else before it can be used by the CANDU. Or maybe I’m misunderstanding the article. It’s a whole lot easier for me to point out flaws if you guys cite your sources :-)

          2. The DUPIC fuel cycle only requires that the ‘spent’ light reactor fuel be made into fuel bundles of the appropriate geometry no reprocessing is needed.

      1. Nonsense. There are several solutions to the so-called waste issue, and they have been around for decades. The amounts are tiny compared with coal ash which is also full of radioactive material (and there is about a hundred times more of that radioactive material by mass sitting in ash ponds than is waiting for disposal from NPPs)

        Coal also releases Mg and Cd into the environment in staggering amounts, among other heavy toxic metals, and they don’t have a half-life – they are dangerous FOREVER.

        Maybe you should take some of your own advice and look into what the real facts of this issue are.

          1. Let’s not confound the waste stream fro nuclear weapons production with that of nuclear energy however processes like Synroc vitrification have been around for decades. Synroc is a suite of technologies which provide the most effective and durable means of immobilising various forms of intermediate and high-level radioactive wastes for disposal.
            It is basically a ceramic made from several natural minerals which together incorporate into their crystal structures nearly all of the elements present in high level radioactive waste.Recent developments are of specialised forms to immobilise plutonium, and of composite glass-ceramic wasteforms.

      2. In the 1980’s there was a competition held to chose a method of encapsulating nuclear waste. One way was encasing it in borosilicate glass. The other process was called Synrock, for synthetic rock.

        The Synroc process mixed the waste with it (I assume in powder form) then it was poured into a corrugated steel can, open at top and bottom, setting on a platform. An induction heating coil was placed around the can until it and its contents were red hot. Then a hydraulic press squashed the can into a disk.

        In testing, the borosilicate glass failed the high temperature water test, simulating exposure to a geothermal leak. It cracked, had a large color change and pieces of it broke away, releasing simulated nuclear waste.

        The Synroc samples passed that test and the others easily, only slightly discoloring, with no release of the simulated waste.

        Now guess which process the DOE declared the winner.

        ‘Tis moot anyway since the NIMBY’s won’t allow storing any nuclear waste (reusable or truly waste) inside Yucca Mountain. Nevermind that the place is bone dry and has been for a very long time and is not geologically active.

        *googles Synroc*
        Looks like there’s been some new looking at Synroc. Perhaps since the dumbasses at DOE who chose the obviously inferior glass encapsulation process retired.

      1. When my laptop crashes (and it does) it does not cost hundreds of billions of dollars to clear up. Nor do I expect 200 000 years of future generations to pay for the storage and safekeeping of my laptops residue. (40 000 years ago Neanderthal was still walking on the earth, 200 000 years is more than I can even reasonably comprehend.)

        1. Again: How long will the mercury and cadmium released from coal we have already burnt last? Are those huge ash ponds that already exist going to be kept contained and monitored and fussed over literally for as long as there are humans? Just look at the unbelievably huge volumes there is of fly ash out there that will need this sort of care if we don’t burn another lump of coal, and I’m sure you and the other anti nukes are just as concerned that this waste is kept safe for geologic time. Oh, and by the way, by mass there is over 100 times more radioactive material in those fly ash dumps than is waiting for disposal from nuclear technologies.

          1. Fly ash makes some amazingly strong concrete. The ancient Romans burned coal to make ash for their concrete, which is why the Pantheon’s dome has stayed intact for 2,000 years.

          2. The question is not one of the dangers of fly ash, but rather the hypocrisy of ignoring the vast amounts of it out there while demanding that extraordinary measures be taken to deal with spent nuclear fuel that go far beyond what is needed for safe disposal.

  3. If we want to sell clean carbon neutral or better policy we need to sell it as life improving, austerity in liberal democracy leads to kicking the can down the road to waterworld. The worse it gets the less chance people will cohhse even more pain.
    Nuclear and recycled atmospheric carbon and/or hydrogen is the only easy way; with nuclear we can continue to subsidize wind, solar, tidal, maybe some clean hydro too to get us off the carbon addiction.
    Or we can do the waterworld thing; also F&*$ NIMBY, I would love a backyard pebble reactor for my kids to run.

    1. Watch that kettle, tell me when you see steam coming out… WRONG… you’re seeing condensed droplets, the inch or so coming out of the spout that is invisible is true dry steam.

    2. Dry steam is completely vaporized water. It won’t condense until it cools down a lot. At the speeds steam turbines spin, any amount of liquid water getting into them may as well be sand.

  4. This is the danger of the modern age!

    Everyone has a voice to profess what ever view point they believe irrespective of weather that view point is true or not.

    I suspect most commentators on this issue have bit them selves made any more than a cursory glance at the reports on the the technologies in question and I would so bold as to state that none have actually performed or participated in any scientific research and testing.

    In MY opinion solar, wind, coal, nuclear are all very interesting forms of energy production each with their own sets of challenges in terms of production, efficiency,reliability and safety.
    Nothing in this world is perfect and rather than bicker about the BEST way (which is impossible) to achieve energy production. Why don’t we accept the challenge work on applying our Energy to managing the failings of our personally preferred technology rather than spending our time proving someone’s else’s idea is rubbish.

    1. Wind and solar simply cannot, and never will scale to the degree necessary to replace fossil fuels. This is because the sources to nebulus and require far larger collection apparatus, and fluctuate meaning they need storage. A solar plant or a wind farm that could reliably dispatch 1200 MWe (like a nuclear plant) would need have a far greater environmental impact than the greenest Green would ever be comfortable with.

          1. I typoed “post”
            Most multinational corporations and industries pay people (opinion spammers) to post positively and push their agenda. And to suppress any negative viewpoints.

          2. I wish. You know as DV82XL I once was very active on energy blogs and I was well known for my pronuclear stands. It was my wife that asked me finally, why given I was not being paid, was I investing several hours a day on the topic, and upon reflection, I could not give her a good answer. So I stopped, and broadened the activities that I fill my life with.

            However I still see red when I see the same silly lies being tabled by anti-nukes given that it doesn’t take much of an effort to find the truth, AND given the general hypocrisy of holding nuclear power to a far higher set of standards than every other mode, some of which have real issues that need to be addressed regardless.

      1. That’s the whole point there is no one solution. No matter how good a nuke plant is it won’t help a small village in the png highlands or a small farm a100km from the power grid But a few solar pannells will. It every body lives in a city and be benefits from a power grid. Not every lives off grid.

        I’m not opposed to the different technologies we just need to apply the apropriate technology to the situation.

        Different communities have different requirements and different resources available to them. For example to run a petrol generator hear would be nuts as unleaded fuel costs around A$1.16 per litre but in the US I believe the current average is $2.20 per gallon which is a bout 50c US per litre

        As others have mentioned the whole energy debate is not a scientific one but a religious one.

        1. Of course it is ridiculous to discuss nuclear in the context of small isolated communities – by the same token, however wind and solar have no place in a conversation about grid-scale power, which given the lead topic, this thread was about.

          1. you seem to know as little about wind and solar as you claim others do about nuclear, denmark regularly produces more than 150% percent of its entire grid demand in wind alone.

          2. You might want to look a bit more closely at those claims. Denmark’s wind generation depends utterly on the fact that it can level output against Norwegian hydro. Where hydro is not available to provide spinning reserve wind and solar must be backed up by thermal, mostly in the form of gas.

      2. What about adapt demand to match supply? All we need to do that are cheap devices to use as energy management controllers (Raspberry Pi would work nicely) and software and standards (the not so easy part!) to make it work.

        In San Diego, they increase electricity prices during weekdays and lower it at night/on weekends/on holidays to try to flatten peak demand. It works on a fixed schedule so simple timers can be used for automation.

        1. While there are several ideas for demand management implementing them such that it can effectively ameliorate the impacts a fluctuating supply from renewables is non-trivial. Price discipline is only effective in a narrow range and ultimately shifts the burden of energy rationing on to the backs of lower income folk.

          1. renewables like wind are often used as the primary method of regulation, at least in europe they can be turned off and on instantly and their output is in small discrete packets, meaning one can easily hit ones grid target, even generators that can be throtled prefer not to as it often puts them into a less effective regime.

          2. You are spouting nonsense that demonstrates little understanding of the physics and engineering of power generation, or grid operation. Nothing switches ‘instantly’ when one is trafficking in electricity at the sort of values found on a power grid. Nor are renewables used to provide ancillary services on any power grid, anywhere – in fact they use far more of this than any other mode of generation.

          3. you obviously havent heard of geographic load balancing, or how it actually does use renewables for regulation, true that a base load still has to present but it can consist of less than 20% of the actual grid demand.

            you spout insults and doubt anyone but yourself, with a limited knowledgebase(like any bloody human) that is arrogance.

          4. The term geographic load balancing refers to a method of shifting the traffic at DATA CENTERS to maximize the use of renewable energy, it is not applicable to grid distribution. Data can be switched between centers, fixed loads cannot be, nor can the grid be switched, or is there the transmission available to do so on the supply side. At any rate this type of geographic load balancing if used is not referred to as regulation, it is called demand management – the terms mean very different things.

  5. Why shouldn’t be using coal or other destructive forms of energy, we should REDUCE consumption. But we should also not be focusing on forms of energy that produce byproducts that are flat out deadly for thousands of years. No matter how “safe” you want nuclear energy to be, it has to be contained to make it so. It’s the fact that its so fucking deadly that makes it work. Encapsulate it, recycle it, bury it, breed it, upcyle it, shoot it into the sun. It’s still nasty shit, and we shouldn’t be making more of it for our energy lust.
    Sure PV and other forms of energy make nasty by-products right now, but no where near nuclear energy does and has and always will. You can’t take the nuclear out of nuclear….
    The other forms of energy are getting better, storage of those forms is getting better, the production and piece parts of those things are getting safer FASTER than nuclear, which has had since the 19 fucking 40’s to be safe, and it is not…
    And what price????
    Our best chance is the big fusion reactor in the sky… Lets go with what works, not with empty fucking promises. and NOT IN MY BACK YARD

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