Underway on nuclear power

By Denver Nicks

As we finalized our upcoming issue of Nuclear Power International, a major milestone for the nuclear industry passed by quietly, almost stealthily—silent and deep, you might say.

Vice Admiral Eugene P. Wilkinson passed away on Thursday, July 11, at the age of 94. Decades earlier, in 1955, the vice admiral made history when, while piloting a submersible ship named the USS Nautilus out of Groton, Conn., into Long Island Sound, he uttered the now-famous words, “Underway on nuclear power.”  

The moment was not only momentous because it marked the beginning of America’s nuclear navy (and, not incidentally, of nuclear navies all over the world) but because it marked a singular inaugural moment for something that would be even more transformational for our planet: the use of nuclear fission to generate power. In the Nautilus, President Eisenhower recognized the potential for peaceful application of civilian nuclear power technology, leading to his seminal “Atoms for Peace” program. And the rest, as they say, is history.

According author Francis Duncan, the father of the nuclear navy Admiral Rickover chose Wilkinson to command the first nuclear submarine over the stern objections of many in the submariner community, in part because Wilkinson was not even a submariner himself. He was chosen, writes Duncan, because, not having graduated from the Naval Academy, he was “free from the deadly embrace of tradition,” and because he had been a trained physicist before joining the service, giving him technical know-how the older cadre of officers lacked.

Wilkinson’s passing gives us occasion to reflect on the nature of the nuclear project. At a time when the course was being set for how the future of nuclear power would play out in the Atomic Age, Admiral Rickover chose Wilkinson, a scientist willing to challenge the status quo and look out past the fog of tradition. Because of this attitude toward nuclear power, shared by Eisenhower and others, the technology scaled up to start providing steady, emissions-free energy to people all over the world in a relative blink of an eye (see my earlier post, “Energy through the ages,” about how much faster nuclear power scaled up than any other energy technology in human history). Today nuclear power is challenged on numerous fronts, while a world suffering from a runaway greenhouse effect and deadly particulate pollution needs it more than ever. We would do well to remember why Wilkinson was chosen for the job. That same outlook—bold, informed, future-oriented—is what the world needs from nuclear power in the 21st century.

In our upcoming issue of NPI, we have a number of articles that look toward the future with optimism and a respect for technical knowledge. Taylor Wilson, who at the age of 14 became the youngest person ever to build a working nuclear reactor, writes about why nuclear power needs to get small to survive, and suggests a molten salt small modular reactor design to do it. Tom Franch, of AREVA, writes about the relatively new and growing threat of cyberattacks and the importance of cybersecurity for nuclear facilities. Independent consultant Bill Linton writes about the very latest nuclear industry developments in the MENA region—Middle East and North Africa—where economies dependent upon fossil-fuel exports are ramping up nuclear power in an effort to ensure long-term energy security while reserving petroleum products for sale abroad. These and other articles in our upcoming issue of NPI point to a future for nuclear power in which, while challenges abound, technical advances both recent and on the horizon suggest even more promising days to come.

In thinking about nuclear power in the year 2013, we’re reminded of that old supposedly-Chinese blessing/curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

And they are interesting times indeed here on planet earth, underway on nuclear power.


(Here's a link to a nice obit on Wilkinson from from the NYT).