I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Navy nuclear power program in the early 1970s. It was run at the time by a man the entire world owes an unpayable debt to, Admiral Hyman Rickover—Uncle Hymie. He was charged with taking the knowledge gained from the Manhattan Project and Enrico Fermi’s experiments at the University of Chicago in the 1930s and developing a safe and reliable nuclear reactor to power the first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus. He did. He built it from scratch. The Nautilus was reliable, safe and awesome.
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In doing so, Rickover learned that a nuclear reactor is the most efficient means ever invented of making steam to power turbines, but also the most dangerous. A nuclear reactor straddles the razor’s edge between a boiler and the Bomb that, in its crudest form, flattens cities. A reactor can be controlled only if the utmost standards are insisted upon with absolute and unwavering resolve. Anything less was a certain path to eventual disaster.
And boy, did Rickover insist. He made sure that anyone who designed, built, controlled or even worked on one of his nukes was without question the Best, capital B. After we blew up two cities with the prototypes, and scared the world (and the Soviets) at Bikini, showing what the new fusion model would do, who was going to question anyone with balls enough to try to actually harness this thing?
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So Hymie had carte blanche to be the biggest bully in the world to safely bring this power to heel. So he did, in spades. He insisted on absolute power over every detail of the submarine fleet, from the captain of the boat to the kid who greased the bearings, taking only the cream of the fleet. From the start of the project in the late 1940s to the time he was forced out in 1981, you had to be in the top 1 percent on any given test to start the program. He made every course so tough that 96 percent of those that entered did not finish. You do the math. A back-breaking year and a half series of schools that exceeded a four-year engineering course at MIT just to work in the engine room, and you wash out 96 percent?
Rickover was just as hard on the companies that built his boats. In the 1980s, that was his downfall. General Electric had enough. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
After his success and renown from the Nautilus project, the country was sold on the promise of peaceful uses of nuclear reactors to generate electricity. Think about it: no fuel costs. We were told that electricity would be so cheap, we wouldn’t even bother to meter it, it would come to your house for free.
Well, maybe. But Rickover had learned what this would require ensuring the safety of the American people. He basically invented the whole process. He knew these promises would never be kept unless the process was controlled by the government without the temptation to cut corners on the construction, operation, maintenance or lifespan of every plant. In short, he understood that you do not surround every city in America with slow-motion atomic bombs to provide electrical power in exchange for a profit to investors. That would invariably lead to cutting corners and disaster.
Rickover did what would be unthinkable today. He used his prestige to insist that any reactor used to generate electricity in the United States should be built and operated by the U.S. Navy to ensure its safety. After all, you did say the electricity would be free, so why would Wall Street want to build nuclear plants anyway?
So the first reactor in the country, Beaver Valley1 at Shippingport, just south of Pittsburgh, went operational in December 1957 and operated under contract to the Atomic Energy Commission from day one until the original reactor was dismantled in 1986 and Beaver Valley 2 was commissioned through 2047. Of course, it was designed and built as well as operated with Rickover for Westinghouse Electric Corporation (Owned by the Mellon family out of Pittsburgh). Most of the $110 million cost (close to $1 billion in today’s dollars) was subsidized by the government’s Atomic Energy Commission. And every kilowatt of the 60,000kw-capacity plant was sold by Duquesne Light (Owned by the Mellon family out of Pittsburgh).
Instead of being too cheap to bother charging for, it seems that Duquesne Lights rates were close to triple the other electric company in Pittsburgh, West Penn Power. Who could have guessed that 30 years later, building nuclear power plants on top of the world’s largest coal field might not be the most cost-efficient way to go? Rickover, of course.
But after it came on-line, it was on ever magazine cover and TV and newspapers all saying how safe it turned out to be after all! Nothing to worry about here, you silly gooses. Uncle Hymie was directed to supervise the construction of a few hundred ICBM subs GE and Westinghouse were building to keep us safe. Surely these two American icons can be trusted to put safety ahead of profits.
And they sort of could for a while. But every year, the pressure from stockholders on the Jack Welches of the world put dividends first, leaving it to the actuarial bean counters to worry about the exposure-danger vs. maintenance-costs formula. Those operating licenses good for 40 years and extended for 20 got yet another 20-year extension thanks to the retired senator lobbying the energy subcommittee overseeing the now toothless Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Meanwhile, even the Japanese, engineering geniuses and the world’s most experienced radiation victims, build nuke plants on the coast in tsunami zones, and put back-up generators on ground level and fuel tanks underground, right on the beach, because it would have cost more to put them on the roof, what could possibly go wrong with that?
Uncle Hymie must be spinning in his grave.
Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy know that their own nuclear plans previously on the table are not do-able after the Japan debacle. Even the Germans plan on permanently shutting their entire fleet of 17 nuclear plants by 2022. It’s almost unthinkable that the United States would build new ones any time soon. Lag time between approval and start up would be measured in decades. Witness the ever-lengthening delays surrounding Progress Energy’s and FPL’s plans.
So these two will ask the Florida legislature to let them continue charging us all today, as they have for the past three years, for the nukes they plan to build in the future. And of course the lawmakers who enacted the scheme and the Florida Public Service Commission acting as lackey will let them. Energy independence, rah rah, Hugo Chavez, Arabs, Blablabla. In return for a few campaign contributions, a few rounds of golf, a consulting contract and a paid speech or two, we all know we are going to get screwed.
After a few years, we’ll probably forget all about the money. They’ll keep it. Our elected whores will let them use it for the crisis du jour. If we’re very, very lucky, we will get a small credit dribbled out on our monthly bill for the money they’d have been grabbing for years for the plants that will never get built, minus engineering and planning costs, minus lost profits, minus interest, minus lobbying costs.
Nuclear kabuki and the old corruption two-step. Same as it ever was here in the land we stole from the mosquitoes. But then they didn’t need nuclear-powered air conditioning to live in this swamp, as our nuclear-tipped overseers tell us we do.