First U.S. Commercial Nuclear Plant Opens

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the Duquesne Light Company opened the first large-scale commercial nuclear power plant, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, giving birth to the nuclear power industry.

Summary of Event

The first full-scale commercial nuclear power plant in the United States was built by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation for the Duquesne Light Company at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, and was started up on December 2, 1957, on the fifteenth anniversary of the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. Nuclear fission had been discovered in Germany by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in 1938 when they bombarded uranium with neutrons and observed traces of radioactive barium impurities. [kw]First U.S. Commercial Nuclear Plant Opens (Dec. 2, 1957)
[kw]U.S. Commercial Nuclear Plant Opens, First (Dec. 2, 1957)
[kw]Commercial Nuclear Plant Opens, First U.S. (Dec. 2, 1957)
[kw]Nuclear Plant Opens, First U.S. Commercial (Dec. 2, 1957)
Nuclear energy;power plants
Shippingport Atomic Power Station
Power plants
Nuclear energy;power plants
Shippingport Atomic Power Station
Power plants
[g]North America;Dec. 2, 1957: First U.S. Commercial Nuclear Plant Opens[05670]
[g]United States;Dec. 2, 1957: First U.S. Commercial Nuclear Plant Opens[05670]
[c]Energy;Dec. 2, 1957: First U.S. Commercial Nuclear Plant Opens[05670]
[c]Trade and commerce;Dec. 2, 1957: First U.S. Commercial Nuclear Plant Opens[05670]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;Dec. 2, 1957: First U.S. Commercial Nuclear Plant Opens[05670]
[c]Engineering;Dec. 2, 1957: First U.S. Commercial Nuclear Plant Opens[05670]
Fermi, Enrico
Hahn, Otto
Meitner, Lise
Strauss, Lewis L.

The Shippingport reactor vessel during construction, 1956.

(Library of Congress)

When Hahn’s former associate Lise Meitner received word of this result, she recognized the possibility that neutrons had split the nuclei of uranium atoms into two smaller nuclei, yielding barium and krypton. Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch calculated the enormous energy that would be released in this type of reaction from the electrical repulsion of fragments such as barium, krypton, strontium, and cesium.

Early in 1939, nuclear fission was verified in several laboratories, including the simultaneous emission of neutrons that could cause new fissions with even more neutrons, producing a self-sustaining chain reaction. In this process, the fissioning of one kilogram of uranium would release energy equivalent to burning three billion tons of coal.

In the Manhattan Project of World War II, the first controlled nuclear chain reaction was demonstrated on December 2, 1942, in a nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago under the leadership of Enrico Fermi. He used a graphite “moderator” to slow the neutrons by collisions with carbon atoms. A large enough lattice of pure graphite and natural uranium fuel elements was assembled to achieve a “critical mass,” in which the number of neutrons not escaping from the “pile” would be sufficient to sustain a chain reaction of fissioning U-235 atoms. Neutron-absorbing cadmium control rods were slowly withdrawn to begin the reaction. It was also found that U-238 atoms in the reactor would capture fast neutrons to produce the new element plutonium, which is also fissionable. During the war, large reactors were built to “breed” plutonium, since it was easier to separate than U-235. After the war, an experimental fast-breeder reactor at Arco, Idaho, was the first to generate electric power from the energy of nuclear fission on December 20, 1951.

The first reactor design to be developed in the United States for producing substantial amounts of electric power was the pressurized water reactor (PWR), in which water under high pressure was used as the moderator-coolant. This “light-water” design used fuel elements of enriched uranium in the form of rods or plates at temperatures of about 300 degrees Celsius. After circulating through the reactor core, the hot pressurized water flowed through a heat exchanger to produce steam to drive a turbine connected to an ordinary electric generator. This system was used in the first reactor to produce substantial amounts of power, the experimental Mark I reactor at the National Reactor Testing Station in Arco, Idaho. It was started up on May 31, 1953, and was the prototype for the reactor used in the first nuclear-powered submarine.

On December 8, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his “Atoms for Peace” speech, emphasizing the need for an international program of civilian uses of atomic energy. Led by its chairman, Admiral Lewis L. Strauss, the Atomic Energy Commission Atomic Energy Commission, U.S.;power generation (AEC) selected the Duquesne Light Company Duquesne Light Company , a Pittsburgh utility, to construct the first large-scale nuclear power station at Shippingport, located on the south bank of the Ohio River about twenty-five miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Westinghouse was chosen to manufacture the reactor, based on the Navy’s PWR system and assisted by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover Rickover, Hyman G. . Led by its president, Philip A. Fleger Fleger, Philip A. , the Duquesne Light Company leased land to the AEC and provided the steam turbine and electric generator. The company also provided $5 million for research and development and assumed responsibility for operation and maintenance of the projected nuclear power plant.

After opening on December 2, 1957, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station began supplying electricity to customers on December 18. At a cost of about $50 million, its pressurized water reactor employed a square annular array of highly enriched uranium fuel elements surrounded both inside and out with a “blanket” of normal uranium dioxide. This arrangement provided a uniform release of fission energy throughout the cylindrical core, which measured two meters in both height and diameter, when its twenty-four hafnium control rods were removed. The core was immersed in water inside the pressure vessel, which was ten meters high and three meters in diameter with steel walls twenty-two centimeters thick.

The reactor produced about 60 megawatts of electric power for the Duquesne Light Company until 1964, when its reactor core was replaced with a new core with a maximum capacity of 150 megawatts. The second core operated until 1974, when it was replaced with a breeder core to serve as a breeder demonstration program for the remainder of its twenty-five-year design lifetime. On October 1, 1982, it was shut down and disconnected from the power grid.


Beginning with the Shippingport power station, when Strauss predicted that electrical energy would become too cheap to meter, nuclear power in the United States has had a mixed record of successes and failures. The AEC encouraged a variety of reactor types with subsidies for research and development in the hope of extending technical knowledge. By 1955, four groups had submitted proposals to the AEC.

In 1966, the Fermi fast-breeder reactor was shut down after an accident that caused a partial meltdown of the core and a near disaster that would have required the evacuation of Detroit. By the mid-1960’s, experimentation with power reactor types ended, and light-water reactors became the industry standard in the United States. By 1973, forty-two plants were in operation, fifty more were under construction, and about one hundred were on order. The industry predicted that 50 percent of the nation’s electric power would be nuclear by the end of the twentieth century.

The promise of nuclear energy, however, would not be completely fulfilled. Growing concerns about safety and waste disposal led to increased efforts to delay or block the construction of new plants. The cost of nuclear plants rose as legal delays and inflation pushed costs higher, so that many plants in the planning stage could no longer be competitive. The 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania and the much more serious 1986 Chernobyl accident in the Soviet Union provided new ammunition for opponents.

Since 1980, a number of problems relating to the decommissioning of retired nuclear plants have developed. The Shippingport Atomic Energy Plant reactor was dismantled by General Electric between 1984 and 1989 at a total cost of $91 million. Its fuel was removed by the Department of Energy (successor to the AEC), and its pressure vessel was sent to Hanford, Washington, for burial. Nuclear energy;power plants
Shippingport Atomic Power Station
Power plants

Further Reading

  • Beaver, William. Nuclear Power Goes On-Line: A History of Shippingport. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990. A good account of the Shippingport nuclear power plant’s history. Part of Greenwood’s Economics and Economic History series. Includes a bibliography.
  • Cantelon, Philip L., Richard G. Hewlett, and Robert C. Williams, eds. The American Atom. 2d ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. A documentary history of nuclear policies beginning in 1939. A chapter on nuclear power has a brief introduction to the history of the nuclear industry. Includes excerpts from documents such as the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and a 1979 report on the Three Mile Island accident.
  • Glasstone, Samuel. Sourcebook on Atomic Energy. Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand, 1967. An authoritative source on all aspects of nuclear energy. Includes historical background, a chapter on nuclear reactors, and nearly forty references.
  • Inglis, David R. Nuclear Energy: Its Physics and Its Social Challenge. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1973. A good introduction for general readers. Includes a chapter on nuclear reactors with diagrams, photographs, and references. Several interesting appendixes.
  • Macfarlane, Allison M., and Rodney C. Ewing, eds. Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006. A study of the planned Yucca Mountain, Nevada, nuclear waste site and accompanying controversy, criticism, and protest. Includes maps.
  • Sagan, Leonard A., ed. Human and Ecologic Effects of Nuclear Power. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 1974. A series of chapters by experts in the management of radioactivity and the ecologic effects of nuclear reactors. Includes diagrams, tables, and references.
  • U.S. Congress. Office of Technology Assessment. Aging Nuclear Power Plants: Managing Plant Life and Decommissioning. OTA-E-575. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1993. Discusses the problems of aging nuclear plants, decommissioning, and nuclear waste. Includes charts, graphs, photographs, and case studies of nine operating plants.

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