Nuclear Reactor Design Chosen – Not Because It Was Safe – But Because It Worked On Navy Submarines

From June 20, 2011

Virtually all of the nuclear reactors in the U.S. are of the same archaic design as those at Fukushima (Indeed, MSNBC notes that there are 23 U.S. reactors which are more or less identical to those at Fukushima.)

Called “light-water reactors”, this design was not chosen for safety reasons. Rather, it was chosen because it worked in Navy submarines.

Specifically, as the Atlantic reported in March:

In the early years of atomic power, as recounted by Alvin Weinberg, head of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in his book The First Nuclear Era, there was intense competition to come up with the cheapest, safest, best nuclear reactor design.

Every variable in building an immensely complex industrial plant was up for grabs: the nature of the radioactive fuel and other substances that form the reactor’s core, the safety systems, the containment buildings, the construction substances, and everything else that might go into building an immensely complex industrial plant. The light water reactor became the technological victor, but no one is quite sure whether that was a good idea.

Few of these alternatives were seriously investigated after light water reactors were selected for Navy submarines by Admiral Hyman Rickover. Once light water reactors gained government backing and the many advantages that conferred, other designs could not break into the market, even though commercial nuclear power wouldn’t explode for years after Rickover’s decision. “There were lots and lots of ideas floating around, and they essentially lost when light water came to dominate,” University of Strasbourg professor Robin Cowan told the Boston Globe in an excellent article on “technological lock-in” in the nuclear industry.

As it turned out, there were real political and corporate imperatives to commercialize nuclear power with whatever designs were already to hand. It was geopolitically useful for the United States to show they could offer civilian nuclear facilities to its allies and the companies who built the plants (mainly GE and Westinghouse) did not want to lose the competitive advantage they’d gained as the contractors on the Manhattan Project. Those companies stood to make much more money on nuclear plants than traditional fossil fuel-based plants, and they had less competitors. The invention and use of the atomic bomb weighed heavily on the minds of nuclear scientists. Widespread nuclear power was about the only thing that could redeem their role in the creation of the first weapon with which it was possible to destroy life on earth. In other words, the most powerful interest groups surrounding the nuclear question all wanted to settle on a power plant design and start building.


President Lyndon Johnson and his administration sent the message that we were going to use nuclear power, and it would be largely through the reactor designs that already existed, regardless of whether they had the best safety characteristics that could be imagined. [Nixon also fired the main government scientist developing safer types of reactors, because he was focused on safety instead of sticking with Nixon’s favored reactors.] We learned in later years that boiling water reactors like Fukushima are subject to certain types of failure under very unusual circumstances, but we probably would have discovered such problems if we’d explored the technical designs for longer before trying to start building large numbers of nuclear plants.

The Atomic Energy Commission’s first general manager – MIT professor Carroll Wilson – confirmed in 1979:

The pressurized water reactor was peculiarly suitable and necessary for a submarine power plant where limitations of space and wieght were extreme. So as interest in the civilian use of nuclear power began to grow, it was natural to consider a system that had already proven reliable in submarines. This was further encouraged by the fact that the Atomic Energy Commission provided funds to build the first civilian nuclear power plant … using essentially the same system as the submarine power plant. Thus it was that a pressurized light water system became the standard model for the world. Although other kinds of reactors were under development in different countries, there was a rapid scale-up of of the pressurized water reactor and a variant called the boiling water reactor developed by General Electric. These became the standard types for civilian power plants. in the United States and were licensed to be built in France, Germany, Japan and elsewhere.

If one had started to design a civilian electric power plant without the constraints of weight and space as required by the submarine, quite different criteria would apply.

(Wilson also notes that the engineers who built the original reactors didn’t really think about the waste or other basic parts of the plants’ life cycle.)

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard argues that there was another reason why all safer alternative designs – including thorium reactors – were abandoned:

The plans were shelved because thorium does not produce plutonium for bombs.

As Boing Boing notes:

Reactors like this [are] flawed in some ways that would be almost comical, were it not for the risk those flaws impart. Maybe you’ve wondered over the past couple of weeks why anyone would design a nuclear reactor that relied on external generators to power the pumps for it’s emergency cooling system. In a real emergency, isn’t there a decent chance that the backup generators would be compromised, as well?

It’s a good question. In fact, modern reactor designs have solved that very problem, by feeding water through the emergency cooling system using gravity, rather than powered pumps. Newer designs are much safer, and more reliable. But we haven’t built any of them in the United States …

Not the Navy’s Fault

This is in no way a criticism of the U.S. Navy or its submarine reactors. As a reader comments:

There are some things to know about Navy reactors:

  1. They don’t store thirty years worth of used, spent fuel rods next to the reactor.

  2. They don’t continue to operate a reactor that had a design life of 25 years for 60 years.

  3. The spent fuel pool is back on land on a base somewhere.

(In addition, the reactors on subs are much smaller than commercial reactors, and so have almost no consequences for the civilian population if they meltdown. And if an accident were to happen on a nuclear sub, the sub would likely sink or at least flood, presumably keeping the reactor from melting down in the first place.)

There Are No Independent Regulators and No Real Safety Standards

But at least the government compensates for the inherently unsafe design of these reactors by requiring high safety and maintenance standards.

Unfortunately, no …

As AP notes today:

Federal regulators have been working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation’s aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards or simply failing to enforce them.


Examples abound. When valves leaked, more leakage was allowed — up to 20 times the original limit. When rampant cracking caused radioactive leaks from steam generator tubing, an easier test of the tubes was devised so plants could meet standards.


Records show a recurring pattern: reactor parts or systems fall out of compliance with the rules; studies are conducted by the industry and government; and all agree that existing standards are “unnecessarily conservative.’’

Regulations are loosened, and the reactors are back in compliance.

Of course, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission – like all nuclear “agencies” worldwide – is 100% captured and not an independent agency, and the NRC has never denied a request for relicensing old, unsafe nuclear plants.

Indeed, Senator Sanders says that the NRC pressured the Department of Justice to sue the state of Vermont after the state and its people rejected relicensing of the Vermont Yankee plant, siding with the nuclear operator instead. The Nation notes:

Aileen Mioko Smith, director of Green Action Kyoto, met Fukushima plant and government officials in August 2010. “At the plant they seemed to dismiss our concerns about spent fuel pools,” said Mioko Smith. “At the prefecture, they were very worried but had no plan for how to deal with it.”

Remarkably, that is the norm—both in Japan and in the United States. Spent fuel pools at Fukushima are not equipped with backup water-circulation systems or backup generators for the water-circulation system they do have.

The exact same design flaw is in place at Vermont Yankee, a nuclear plant of the same GE design as the Fukushima reactors. At Fukushima each reactor has between 60 and 83 tons of spent fuel rods stored next to them. Vermont Yankee has a staggering 690 tons of spent fuel rods on site.

Nuclear safety activists in the United States have long known of these problems and have sought repeatedly to have them addressed. At least get backup generators for the pools, they implored. But at every turn the industry has pushed back, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has consistently ruled in favor of plant owners over local communities.

After 9/11 the issue of spent fuel rods again had momentary traction. Numerous citizen groups petitioned and pressured the NRC for enhanced protections of the pools. But the NRC deemed “the possibility of a terrorist attack…speculative and simply too far removed from the natural or expected consequences of agency action.” So nothing was done—not even the provision of backup water-circulation systems or emergency power-generation systems.

As an example of how dangerous American nuclear reactors are, AP noted in a report Friday that 75 percent of all U.S. nuclear sites have leaked radioactive tritium.

Indeed, because of poor design, horrible safety practices, and no real regulation, a U.S. nuclear accident could be a lot worse than Fukushima.



2 thoughts on “Nuclear Reactor Design Chosen – Not Because It Was Safe – But Because It Worked On Navy Submarines

  1. Interesting, and I have no doubt that this is true. At the same time, the whole article looks awfully like the preamble to the spin from the “new nuclear” lobbyists – particularly the thorium reactor enthusiasts. They argue that because the ‘conventional’ nuclear reactors have safety problems, the world should switch to their untested new designs.

    A more compelling argument is to abandon nuclear power, and switch to renewable energy systems.


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