Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Paper reactors, real reactors - Rickover

I imagine I've frustrated a nuclear advocate or two with a few posts and/or comments in this blog and elsewhere. I further guess that this post could very well fall into the category, but that is not my objective; nor is my intent to point a finger at any person or group in particular other than those specifically called out below. I only wish to point to some wise advice from a very accomplished man. We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but from my perspective, tangible accomplishments (i.e. building something from nothing to solve a significant problem or provide for a great societal need) goes a very long way toward earning my respect and admiration.

That being said, I’d like to share the words of Hyman Rickover. Many US Nuclear Navy servicemen (active, or particularly non-active/retired) love the guy. I’m not that far out on the spectrum, but I do respect his accomplishments as well as his respect for demonstrated achievement.

One of Rickover’s letters (or possibly a congressional testimony) is copied below, word for word and reflects my own experience as an Engineer with a few decades of nuclear industry experience (reactor O&M and capital projects management).

But its relevance goes far beyond the nuclear industry. One can apply academic-practical tests to a number of energy related issues of the day (i.e. the projections / promises of a number of renewable energy advocates vs. the experiences of Germany; clean coal efforts in the USA; etc.).

Next, try to imagine the introduction of politics (i.e. the political low carbon energy deployment plan vs. the practical low carbon energy deployment plan).

Finally, please bear in mind that this letter was written at a time of general nuclear optimism - especially within the general public. In today's context, the same academic-practical disconnect applies equally to those who repeatedly over-inflate nuclear related risk a la Caldicott, Lovins, etc.

June 5, 1953

Important decisions about the future development of atomic power must frequently be made by people who do not necessarily have an intimate knowledge of the technical aspects of reactors. These people are, nonetheless, interested in what a reactor plant will do, how much it will cost, how long it will take to build and how long and how well it will operate. When they attempt to learn these things, they become aware of confusion existing in the reactor business. There appears to be unresolved conflict on almost every issue that arises.

I believe that this confusion stems from a failure to distinguish between the academic and the practical. These apparent conflicts can usually be explained only when the various aspects of the issue are resolved into their academic and practical components. To aid in this resolution, it is possible to define in a general way those characteristics which distinguish the one from the other.

An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose (“omnibus reactor”). (7) Very little development is required. It will use mostly “off-the-shelf” components. (8) The reactor is in the study phases. It is not being built now.

On the other hand, a practical reactor plant can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It is requiring an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. Corrosion, in particular, is a problem. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of the engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.

The tools of the academic-reactor designer are a piece of paper and a pencil with an eraser. If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed. If the practical-reactor designer errs, he wears the mistake around his neck; it cannot be erased. Everyone can see it.

The academic-reactor designer is a dilettante. He has not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with his projects. He is free to luxuriate in the elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of “mere technical details.” The practical-reactor designer must live with these same technical details. Although recalcitrant and awkward, they must be solved and cannot be put off until tomorrow. Their solutions require manpower, time and money.

Unfortunately for those who must make far-reaching decisions without the benefit of an intimate knowledge of reactor technology and unfortunately for the interested public, it is much easier to get the academic side of an issue than the practical side. For a large part those involved with the academic reactors have more inclination and time to present their ideas in reports and orally to those who will listen. Since they are innocently unaware of the real but hidden difficulties of their plans, [t]hey speak with great facility and confidence. Those involved with practical reactors, humbled by their experiences, speak less and worry more.

Yet it is incumbent on those in high places to make wise decisions, and it is reasonable and important that the public be correctly informed. It is consequently incumbent on all of us to state the facts as forthrightly as possible. Although it is probably impossible to have reactor ideas labelled as “practical” or “academic” by the authors, it is worthwhile for both the authors and the audience to bear in mind this distinction and to be guided thereby.

Yours faithfully,

H. G. Rickover
Naval Reactors Branch
Division of Reactor Development
U.S. Atomic Energy Commission


  1. Which leads to 2 obvious points. (1) With oil running out over the next few decades we need electrification + extra electricity and we need to start building nuclear power ASAP [or thumbing our nose at the world and building more coal power], so we need to start with Gen III; (2) The world needs to put in the huge costs to build production scale plants of multiple new reactor designs, to find the hidden problems (and Australia needs to make a fair contribution to that effort).

  2. Couple of observations to an otherwise very pertinent letter:

    o Rickover is showing hints of a general distrust of academics, which is a dangerous direction to go in too enthusiastically. I am bearing in mind the anti-intellectualism that pervades many levels of politics.

    o Perhaps to create a greater contrast with the above, Ricover is in danger of painting a picture of doom and gloom for the engineering side, with nothing but problems and expenses.

    I think the anti-nukes have more of Rickover's cariacature academic nature when they are talking about alternatives like wind and solar. When they are discussing nuclear power directly they tend towards the doomsday reciprocal of that persona; anything that can go wrong will do so ten times over.

  3. Thanks for this post - one of my favourite Rickover quotes.

    The point, as anyone involved in making real machines (nuclear or not) knows, is that it is hard to make things that really work.

    There are any number of reactor concepts that work great on paper, but that are really, really hard to build and operate.

    Theory is great, but practice is hard.

    This is a bit like the divide between science and engineering.

  4. Joffan,

    I think Rickover is showing some skepticism, yes; but only with practical experience in hand. In many areas of study/effort, such experience just isn't possible. See the below Knol about Amory Lovins as example. Rickover's comments are very similar to DeVolpi's 'Smell and Ripeness Tests'.

    Rickover is highlighting the difference between knowledge and ability. I post frequently about 'demonstrated' energy generation technology projects around the world (or the lack thereof) for just this reason. Many speak about the capabilities of this technology or that... Okay, well then show me? Take this approach to its logical conclusion and the available technologies that can credibly, significantly reduce emissions are efficiency, conservation, nuclear, hydro and to a lesser extend - in specific locations - various renewables.

    Doom and gloom? I am an Engineer and consider Rickover's quote to be high praise and quite complimentary - recognition of the better part of my life's work. Others may not agree, but to me Engineering is all about solving problems by implementing high quality solutions within an agreed budget and schedule.

    I fully agree with your last line - as I said in my post.

  5. I don't think Rickover was faced with our problem, i.e. how to get civilization off fossil fuels when most don't understand that it is necessary. But, as far as it goes, it is advice from a master.

  6. I thought of this post when listening to a Rod Adams podcast, The Atomic Show #014 which was an interview with Ted Rockwell. They discussed Rickover's decision not to "improve" Navy reactors by moving to sodium cooling. There's a good comic story involving Rickover at the end.

  7. Yeah, it's a good one.

    I know many experienced nuclear engineers who are both delighted by the renewed interest in nuclear energy and frustrated by a new generation of advocate-experts who tend to present more ambitious 'academic' ideas. All agree the world needs dreamers but we should also respect the experience and heed the advice of our nuclear 'elders'.

  8. Weinberg, one of the inventors of the water reactor, went against Rickover's ideas for water reactors and was sacked for that. He pioneered the molten salt reactor at Oak Ridge and realised it was proving better and safer than the water reactors he was earlier involved with. So I think Rickover was pushing his baby and not thinking broadly at all, especially since any pioneering work most often has to begin on "paper"... even his own.

  9. Thanks for your comment.
    There is a difference between being smart and being capable. Weinberg's concepts (and those of others) may prove superior over the long term; but Rickover was driving a deployment program. And in that role, tough decisions had to be made and the pathway cleared for demonstrable achievement in lieu of ongoing development.

    Think of building a bridge to cross a river. Bridge designs have improved over the years and will probably continue to do so forever - due to advances in materials technology and engineering modelling capability to name just a few. Eventually you've got to stop waiting for the next big idea and build a damn bridge.