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.
In 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.
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.”*
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.
Then 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
In March 1991, the NRC’s Operations Center was located in the Maryland National Bank Building, in Bethesda, Md., even though the first building of the new, soon-to-be consolidated NRC headquarters complex was occupied in Rockville, Md.
In this photo, then-director of the Division of Safety Systems Analysis, Brian Sheron, briefs the Executive Team during an exercise with the St. Lucie nuclear power plant, in Florida.
At the head of the table (lower left) is Commissioner Ken Rogers, who is joined by a number of high-ranking NRC officials from various offices.
Fast forward to today.
Now, the NRC’s Operations Center is a modern facility using the latest technologies. During this emergency preparedness exercise with the Fermi nuclear power plant, held in April 2014, the Executive Team gets briefings over webcam, while monitoring information on laptops and keeping an eye on the content of simulated social media.
In this exercise, the Executive Team was headed by then-Commissioner George Apostolakis, center, seated.
For more about the NRC’s emergency preparedness activities, visit the agency’s webpage.
In this archival photo, then-Chairman Kenneth M. Carr provides his remarks to participants of the Second Annual Regulatory Information Conference at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. Carr, who spent five years on the Commission, died last year. The current Chairman Stephen Burns had served on his staff. Later this month, the NRC will be holding the 28th RIC in Rockville, Md. On-line registration is closed, but on-site registration is available. For more information, check out the NRC webpage on the conference.
The NRC glossary defines a “scram” as “the sudden shutting down of a nuclear reactor usually by rapid insertion of control rods.” But where did the word come from?
One deeply engrained legend about the origin of the word dates to the first sustained chain reaction on December 2, 1942, at the Chicago Pile (CP-1), the first atomic reactor developed for the Manhattan Project. According to the legend, Enrico Fermi created the acronym, Safety Control Rod Axe Man, for Norman Hilberry. It was Hilberry’s assignment that day to kill a possible runaway reaction by using an axe to cut a rope to allow the backup safety control rod to drop into the pile.
The axe-man story now has a life of its own. A search on Google for “scram” and “axe” yields 124,000 hits. Even the NRC’s glossary attributed scram’s etymology to the axe man story. Oak Ridge National Laboratories reported a fanciful variation of this story where Fermi, presumably unimpressed with the physical prowess of his fellow physicists, recruited a lumberjack from the Pacific Northwest to do the job. That version has now spread on the internet, and the acronym itself has mutated into Super-Critical Reactor Axe Man and Start Cutting Right Away, Man.
Hilberry, as it turns out, only learned the story second-hand years later, which lends some doubt to the axe-man version. Other members of the CP-1 team recalled a different origin for the term. Leona Marshall Libby, the only female physicist present that day, wrote in her memoir that it was Volney “Bill” Wilson who called the safety rods “scram rods.” She didn’t explain why he used the term, but her credit to Wilson was supported by others involved in CP-1, including Warren Nyer.
I contacted Nyer recently, and he was eager to tell the “scram” story, one that squares well with Wilson’s reported version of events. Nyer’s job that day was to be Hilberry’s backup. If all safety systems failed, he and the other members of the “suicide squad” were to dump a liquid cadmium solution on CP-1 to poison the reaction. The axe-man story is, he recalls, “a bunch of baloney.”
But he did offer another explanation for the word. His recollection was that Wilson was assembling an electrical panel that included a big red button. According to Nyer, someone asked Wilson the reason for the red knob. Wilson replied you’d push it if there was a problem. “Well, then what do you do?” he was asked. Wilson reportedly replied “You scram … out of here.” The word appears to have stuck.
Further indication that “scram” was associated with Wilson’s shutdown circuitry and not Hilberry’s axe wielding comes from Enrico Fermi. The AEC declassified information on the Chicago Pile in late 1950, and Fermi authored a 1951 technical report on the reactor detailing the circuitry of the “SCRAM line” designed by Wilson’s team. (See http://www.osti.gov/scitech/servlets/purl/4414200 ).
And so it seems likely that scram switches all over the world owe their names not to the nuclear industry’s later penchant for acronyms, but to the slang of 20th century America.
REFRESH is an occasional series where we revisit some of our previous posts. This post is slightly revised from the original, one of the blog’s most viewed posts, which first ran in May 2011.
Seen here, under construction, is the now-open Welcome Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It is named for a previous NRC Chairman and his wife. Question: What is the name of the Chairman?