Mike Shellenberger ‏@MichaelBTI

In 1968 the US made the stupid decision to stop development of promising, molten salt, meltdown-proof nuclear reactor

A questionable reshaping of reactor research 45 years ago has had long-term consequences.

Sometime in the late 1960s, a great shakeup occurred in nuclear reactor research. As a young employee of the reactor division at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory at that time, I was shocked and confused when the division was suddenly dissolved. Now that we are again considering alternatives to light-water reactors, several narratives have sprung up to explain why these alternatives were abandoned.

Recently, I decided to research that decision using publicly available sources. What I found was remarkable. The key player was Milton Shaw, who directed the Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) Reactor Development and Testing Division (RDTD) at that time. Shaw refocused the US civil nuclear program toward a single goal of the liquid-metal fast breeder reactor, making a number of strategic mistakes that have had long-term safety consequences for the industry.

Shaw was a protégé of Admiral Hyman Rickover, known as the father of the US nuclear navy. Rickover and his team successfully developed nuclear reactors for submarines and then aircraft carriers, releasing them from the need for fossil fuels as the main source of propulsion. The first nuclear submarine, USS Nautilus, was authorized by Congress in July 1951 and was launched January 1954, two and a half years later. The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise was authorized in 1954 and commissioned in 1958, less than four years later.


Why did the US abandon a lead in reactor design?