Throwback Thursday – A July Trip to Tennessee

tbtzechOn July 16, 1987, this Chairman visited the NRC’s Technical Training Center in Chattanooga, Tenn. The TTC was transferred to the agency’s Office of Analysis and Evaluation of Operational Data as part of a reorganization that year. During his visit to the TTC, the then-Chairman was briefed on a reactor simulator that had been leased from the Westinghouse Electric. Co., for training in PWR technology.

Can you name the Chairman?

Defense in Depth Part I: A War for Safety

Thomas Wellock

One hundred years ago the French and German armies of World War I devised a new defensive strategy called “defense in depth.” Its aim was to prevent an enemy breakthrough of an army’s frontline with a deep system of interconnected trench lines and strong points.

Defense in depth circa WWI. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Defense in depth circa WWI. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Popularized in all its desperation and grisly effectiveness in films such as All Quiet on the Western Front, defense in depth has become the NRC’s official metaphor in the battle to protect the public from radiation hazards. It is the key concept governing nuclear safety in using multiple strategies in safety-system design, operations, and emergency procedures and planning.

The NRC’s use of the term has roots in the Manhattan Project of World War II. Military metaphors seemed particularly apt for those charged with ensuring the safety of the early plutonium production reactors at Hanford, Washington. They worried about the potential for a reactor “catastrophe” from a radiation release of “explosive violence.” Their solution was to erect multiple “lines of defense” of trained operators and emergency personnel, carefully sealed fuel rods, shielding walls, backup cooling and power systems, and even a backup to the backup shutdown system—a final solution so drastic that it would destroy the reactor to save the operators lives. Fittingly, its moniker derived from another military term — the “last ditch” safety device.

After the war, the “lines of defense” in reactor safety were categorized into functions by Atomic Energy Commission safety committees:

  1. Features that made a reactor inherently safe;
  2. “Static,” or physical, barriers, such as containment buildings, were to halt the escape of radiation; and
  3. Active systems were to shut down and cool the reactor in the case of unusual conditions.

While the AEC’s safety approach became more coherent, there was no consensus among experts over the relative importance of each category. Some experts focused mostly on a design’s physical barriers, while others gave weight to all three categories and included reactor operation too.

Over time, “defense in depth” replaced the scattered concept of “lines of defense.” Its first use appears to have been in 1958 to describe safety design in the plutonium extraction processes at Hanford. In a 1965 letter to Congress, AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg applied the term to civilian reactor safety as an accident prevention and mitigating strategy.

It provided, he wrote, “multiple safeguards against the occurrence of a serious accident, and for containment of fission product release.” The term stuck.

But the story continues. The Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research has published a report on the history of defense in depth up to the present, which covers the term’s application to the whole nuclear fuel cycle. It’s a fascinating look at how this bedrock safety concept has evolved under the influence of events and new knowledge. We’ll have more on this report on Wednesday.



Throwback Thursday – It Happened in 1984

PalladinoNRC Chairman Nunzio J. Palladino visits the Grand Gulf nuclear power plant at Port Gibson, Miss., in July 1984. The operating license for the plant was issued in November that year and commercial operation began a year later, in July 1985. The photo is from the agency’s 1984 annual report.


REFRESH — SATAN’s Code: The Early Years of Accident Models

Thomas Wellock

When the first mass-produced computers hit the stage in the 1950s, nuclear engineers saw the opportunity to use them to help run accident scenarios. It was a good idea that took decades to become reality and the computer limitations created early uncertainty about reactor safety.

refresh leafIn 1954, Westinghouse experts put together a homemade digital computer that read punch tape. With a practiced ear, you could tell from the computer sounds which program was being run.

In 1959, Battelle Memorial Institute developed an early Loss-of-Coolant-Accident model for a heavy-water plutonium reactor. The program was run on an IBM-650/653, the first mass production computer ever developed. The 650 weighed more than a 1955 Cadillac Deville, had vacuum tubes, and used a punch-card reader. Even if it had the memory and someone willing to load the 50 million cards, it would take six months to boot up Microsoft Windows 7.

Fortunately, Battelle’s code was a mere 166 cards. It calculated the behavior of just one fuel rod (modern reactors have thousands of rods) and took minutes to produce one data point.

For the sake of speedier results, gross simplifications were made. For example, an ideal accident code would have broken a reactor cooling system into many small volumes and done extensive calculations on each one to accurately simulate the complex conditions that existed throughout the reactor core and piping. But to run it on mid-1960s computers could take days. As a result, Westinghouse’s FLASH code used just three volumes to represent the whole reactor system.

At least they had computers. Neither the Idaho National Labs, a center for accident-code development, nor the Atomic Energy Commission had them. INL relied on weekend visits to the University of Utah. At the AEC, engineer Norm Lauben begged time from the National Bureau of Standards. Norm drove to the Bureau’s headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md., in the morning to submit his job on the 12,000-line RELAP-3 code, and returned after lunch to pick up the results.

Engineers were confident that the codes would prove reactor designs were overly conservative. Early results dashed their optimism.

When Westinghouse proudly unveiled its 70-volume SATAN code in 1970, AEC staffers discovered errors in the code indicating that the company’s Emergency Core Cooling System might fail in an accident. The problems of the SATAN code helped lead to a major rulemaking hearing in 1972 on the adequacy of both emergency cooling system designs and accident codes. Those hearings revealed just how embarrassingly uncertain and rudimentary the early codes were about what happened during an accident.

The AEC and later the NRC had to make a huge investment in creating more robust – and accurate – codes. Additional research that produced the RELAP-5 Code that became an industry standard worldwide.

REFRESH is an occasional series where we revisit previous blog posts. This post first ran in July 2011.

Throwback Thursday – Chairmen Past and Future

tbtBurns_high_resolution_scan_editedIn this photo, which appears in the 1989 NRC Annual Report, both the then-current and a future NRC Chairman tour the Comanche Peak nuclear plant with officials (on the left) from Texas Utilities Electric. Can you name both NRC leaders?

“Too Cheap to Meter”: A History of the Phrase

Thomas Wellock

Donald Hintz, Chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said at 2003 conference that the nuclear industry had been “plagued since the early days by the unfortunate quote: ‘Too cheap to meter’.” Those four words had become a standard catchphrase for what critics claim were impossibly sunny promises of nuclear power’s potential.

Not so fast, Hintz countered. He noted that Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss, in a 1954 address to science writers, had coined the phrase to describe fusion power, not fission. Nuclear power may be a victim of mistaken identity.

Hintz was not alone in this view. Over the past four decades, antinuclear and pronuclear versions of what Strauss meant by “too cheap to meter” have appeared in articles, blogs, and books. Even Wikipedia has weighed in, on the pro-nuclear side. Reconciling the two versions isn’t easy since Strauss wasn’t explicit about what power source would electrify the utopian future he predicted.

The text in question:

“Transmutation of the elements,–unlimited power, ability to investigate the working of living cells by tracer atoms, the secret of photosynthesis about to be uncovered,–these and a host of other results all in 15 short years.  It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter,–will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history,–will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger and at great speeds,–and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours, as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age. This is the forecast for an age of peace.”*

AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss (sixth from left) can be seen at the head table at the 1954 National Association of Science Writers Founder Day Dinner. In attendance that evening were five Nobel Prize winners, including future AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg (first on left). Also in this photo: Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (Nobel Prize winner) is third from the left; Alton Blakeslee (president of the National Association of Science Writers) is seventh from the left; Irving Langmuir (Nobel Prize winner) is sixth from the right and Edward C. Kendall (Nobel Prize winner) is fourth from the right.
AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss (sixth from left) can be seen at the head table at the 1954 National Association of Science Writers Founder Day Dinner. In attendance that evening were five Nobel Prize winners, including future AEC Chairman Glenn Seaborg (first on left). Also in this photo: Albert Szent-Gyorgyi (Nobel Prize winner) is third from the left; Alton Blakeslee (president of the National Association of Science Writers) is seventh from the left; Irving Langmuir (Nobel Prize winner) is sixth from the right and Edward C. Kendall (Nobel Prize winner) is fourth from the right.

Nuclear critics believe Strauss was speaking of nuclear power and claim that, as AEC Chairman, he spoke for a budding industry too.  The most thorough defense of Strauss appeared in a 1980 article by the Atomic Industrial Forum.

Citing the opinions of Strauss’s son, former AEC staff, and a Strauss biographer, the AIF argued that Strauss’s omission of a power source in the passage was likely deliberate since he could not make explicit reference to “Project Sherwood,” the AEC’s still secret fusion power program that Strauss championed.

Moreover, the article noted, Strauss understood well that nuclear power would not pay for some years and that his utopian vision might be realized only by his “children’s, children’s, children.” Neither the industry nor the AEC, the AIF article notes, shared Strauss’s optimism.

While the AIF correctly notes the AEC Chairman’s interest in fusion, there is no evidence in Strauss’s papers at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library to indicate fusion was the hidden subject of his speech. Staff suggestions for the address reflected current issues in the AEC’s civilian reactor program—the new Atomic Energy Act, President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace, the Shippingport nuclear power plant, the agency’s efforts to declassify information, and medical uses of reactor-produced isotopes.

While it is true that Strauss could not explicitly discuss classified fusion research, the speech is barren of implicit hints of a new source of power. Strauss focused on fission–the discovery of fission, fission-product applications, and the economic feasibility of fission power.

Strauss’s optimism for fission continued several days later when reporters on a Meet the Press radio broadcast asked him about the quotation and the viability of “commercial power from atomic piles.” Strauss replied that he expected his children and grandchildren would have power “too cheap to be metered, just as we have water today that’s too cheap to be metered.” That day, he said, might be “close at hand.  I hope to live to see it.”

By contrast, when Strauss finally revealed the AEC’s fusion research program, he was not nearly as optimistic. In August 1955, he cautioned “there has been nothing in the nature of breakthroughs that would warrant anyone assuming that this [fusion power] was anything except a very long range—and I would accent the word ‘very’—prospect.”

In the years after the speech, the lay public and the power industry never questioned that Strauss’s predictions were for fission power.  The New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning science reporter, William Laurence, attended Strauss’s speech and featured the catchphrase prominently in articles and a book. He wrote of the prediction, “All signs point to the realization within the next decade of a price for nuclear fuels so low that only hydroelectric power, which alone is produced without any cost for fuel could compete with it.”

The electric power industry was not happy with their new catchphrase. Industry officials distanced themselves from Strauss’s speech, sometimes diplomatically calling Strauss too optimistic.

Others were blunt. The president of Cleveland Electric Illuminating disparaged too cheap to meter as “a myth” given the small contribution fuel costs made to a customer’s electric bill. Electrical World called “too cheap to meter” a “delusion” that would make it harder for utility companies to explain electric costs to customers.  In the meantime, the editors declared, utilities would welcome many more customers “with a meter in each and every one.”

This skepticism was echoed by more sober evaluations of nuclear power economics at the AEC and within the industry. Former AEC Commissioner James Ramey was probably correct when he said, “Nobody took Strauss’ statement very seriously.”

It is likely, then, that nuclear critics and proponents are partially correct. “Too cheap to meter” was a prediction for a fission utopia in the foreseeable future. But Strauss was speaking for himself.

“A serious governmental body ought not to indulge in predictions,” he said to the science writers. “However, as a person, I suffer from no such inhibition and will venture a few predictions before I conclude.”

He may have believed that he could step away from his Chairman’s role, indulge in speculation, and that history would note the difference.

* Lewis Strauss’s full speech is available in here.  “Too Cheap to Meter” is on page 9.

Nuclear History: A Dramatic Address and a Long Ovation

tbteisenhowerThen President Dwight D. Eisenhower can be seen here just after delivering a dramatic address to the United Nations General Assembly, in New York City. The address was given on Dec. 8, 1953 and ended this way: “The United States pledges before you – and therefore before the world – its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma – to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to this life.”

The ovation that followed lasted a full 10 minutes. The full text of the speech can be found here.

Photo Credit: United Nations / New York; IAEA Imagebank