Where a crown jewel once stood in NASA’s ambitious plans for human space exploration, now lays a green field. Current regulations bar NASA from directly building or researching fueled nuclear devices. Yet, in a bygone era five decades ago, the space agency’s future was dependent on one facility: the Plum Brook Reactor Facility in Sandusky, Ohio.
NASA turned on its first, last, and only nuclear fission test reactors in 1961 to research nuclear-powered airplanes, then eventually nuclear-powered space rockets. But the mounting cost of the Vietnam War and waning interest in manned space exploration led President Richard Nixon to mothball the NASA Plum Brook Station’s two test reactors in 1973.
Ending nuclear propulsion research and development, as this document will describe, may have been an over-reaction fueled by a bad economy and by anti-nuclear proponents in the 1970’s. NASA Glenn and NASA Plum Brook Station could potentially help not just Ohio’s economy, but America’s economy, in the development of new nuclear technologies, while being safe, making the environment better, and aiding in the creation of thousands of good paying jobs.
NASA’s Roots in the Atoms for Peace Program
In 1953, President Eisenhower delivered a speech called “Atoms for Peace” to the United Nations General Assembly. He described the emergence of the atomic age and the weapons of mass destruction that were piling up in the storehouses of the American and Soviet nations. Although neither side was aiming for global destruction, Eisenhower wanted to “move out of the dark chambers of horrors into the light, to find a way by which the minds of men, the hopes of men, the souls of men everywhere, can move towards peace and happiness and well-being.” One way Eisenhower hoped this could happen was by transforming the atom from a weapon of war into a useful tool for civilization.
Many believed that there were unprecedented opportunities for peaceful nuclear applications. These included hopeful visions of atomic powered cities, cars, airplanes, space bases, and interplanetary and possibly even interstellar spaceships. Eisenhower wanted to provide scientists and engineers with “adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas.” But in attempting to devise ways to use atomic power for peaceful purposes, scientists realized how little they knew about using reactors for propulsion. As a result, the United States began constructing nuclear test reactors to enable scientists to conduct research on the atom.
American scientists and engineers carried out the “atoms for peace” initiative at the nearly 200 research and test reactors built in the 1950s and 1960s. Test and research reactors are very different from power reactors, which are built to produce power by converting the heat produced from nuclear fission into electricity. In contrast, research and test reactors are used for scientific and technical investigations. Research reactors help engineers design experiments to enable them to build better reactors with desirable characteristics. Though some private commercial and academic institutions built some research and test reactors, the federal government supported the large majority of them. One of the most powerful in the world (60MWth) was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) test reactor, located at Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio. From 1961 to 1973, this reactor was home to some of the most advanced nuclear experimentation in the United States. The facility also supported a second test reactor, though much less powerful (110 KWth.).
In addition to the nuclear reactors, many of the test facilities constructed at NASA Plum Brook are nuclear capable, meaning, they are designed to be subjected to radiation.
Nuclear Powered Aircraft
One specific 1950s aim for this 1960s research reactor was to build a nuclear-powered airplane (bomber) capable of staying aloft for months at a time. To support this effort, in 1956 NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), began to design and build a large test reactor at Plum Brook Station. By the time the reactor was completed in 1961, President Kennedy had suspended the nuclear aircraft program in favor of inflight refueling. However, in its place he advocated an even bolder plan—a nuclear powered rocket. The Plum Brook Reactor Facility became one of the primary nuclear research facilities to test materials for this rocket. Working with contractors from Lockheed, Westinghouse, General Dynamics, and General Electric, scientists and engineers conducted many groundbreaking nuclear experiments.
Despite the promise of their work, many of the valuable experiments were never concluded. In 1973, just over a decade after President Kennedy first extolled the nuclear rocket’s importance, the project shared the fate of the nuclear airplane. In the post-Apollo era, NASA terminated costly, long-term, non-reusable projects like the nuclear rocket in favor of programs that appeared to have greater immediate payoff, such as the Space Shuttle. Two weeks after Apollo’s last mission, Plum Brook was ordered to shut down its reactor. The entire facility was maintained in a standby mode (under a “possess but do not operate” license) for nearly a quarter century. In 1998, a decommissioning plan was formulated to dismantle the reactor piece by piece, until nothing would be left but bare land, suitable once again for farming. $253 Million taxpayer dollars later, the area now has achieved greenfield status with the EPA.
The Economic Impact of A Large Manufacturing Facility
The original impetus for building NASA Plum Brook Station (NPBS) was the Aircraft Reactor Experiment that started after WWII (May, 28th 1946). The facility was envisioned to carry out the experiments necessary to engineer, build, and put a fleet of nuclear powered bombers in the skies that could stay aloft for months on end, without refueling, to protect America from a Soviet Union attack.
NPBS was to be a modern test facility to do all the testing that Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL was, and still is, America’s premier nuclear testing facility), Argonne National Laboratories, and Los Alamos National Laboratories, could not do, in order to commercialize the production of these envisioned nuclear powered bombers.
Since its inception, the purpose of the NPBS facility, along with its parent NASA Glenn (formerly NASA Lewis), was to test and commercialize nuclear power systems, though its focus has changed as the missions of NASA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have changed. While initially the NPBS mission was of a terrestrial nature (a nuclear powered bomber), one week after NPBS’s reactor went critical John F. Kennedy cancelled the nuclear powered bomber program. NPBS was then transitioned to a Nuclear Space Power laboratory.
NPBS was not used for its intended purpose. The building of a fleet of nuclear powered bombers would have employed thousands of persons in very well-paying manufacturing jobs. A production facility at Plumb Brook was envisioned that would have been larger than the Lordstown, OH General Motors manufacturing facility.
“Why was Sandusky, OH chosen to develop a nuclear powered bomber fleet?”
One of the most prominent reasons for selecting Sandusky, Ohio was that our government wanted the facility to be close to a workforce experienced in the type of manufacturing and assembly that could produce a bomber fleet. This requirement ruled out most of our other national laboratories, such as ORNL, at the time. The thought was, when it came time to build a prototype nuclear bomber, many new manufacturing techniques would have to be developed, and it made sense to develop a mass assembly plant for producing nuclear bombers on the same grounds where the prototype was developed. The size of NPBS was right for an airstrip for the takeoff and landing of bombers needing service and refueling. Sandusky ports on Lake Erie could be made capable of accommodating ships that would deliver materials necessary for construction of the bombers. The facility had access to a modern highway system, and was close enough to the lake, a water source that may have been needed for cooling future test reactors.
Couple the NPBS facility with NACA facility in Cleveland, Ohio, Ohio’s Uranium Enrichment facility in Piketon, Ohio, the planned Ohio State University’s research reactor and nuclear engineering program, and Wright Patterson Air Force Base’ mammoth testing facilities in Dayton, Ohio, and it is easy to see why the federal government saw Sandusky, Ohio as the ideal location for the development and commercialization of a state of the art nuclear bomber production facility. Sub-assemblies would feed a production facility of this nature and fuel-assemblies built and developed elsewhere in Ohio, with many of those workers trained at OSU’s nuclear reactor facility. A massive number of machine and tool shops and other manufacturers would have been engaged in the manufacture of these state of the art bombers.
Reviving an Old Idea with a new Purpose
Think of the potential benefits that 5,000 high paying assembly jobs would have meant to Sandusky, Ohio and to the State of Ohio. Think of what the potential 60,000 direct and indirect jobs would have meant to the State of Ohio and to the United States. [Job numbers have been estimated from a Ford Mass Assembly study] A nuclear bomber mass assembly plant would have had the potential for massive economic impacts across all industry and professional sectors in Sandusky, Ohio, its surrounding townships, and for the State of Ohio, as well as many other states.
Ohio has a large nuclear presence. Its nuclear reactors include two commercial civilian nuclear power plants, one in Northeast Ohio and the other in Northwest Ohio, both on the shore of Lake Erie; and a test reactor at the Ohio State University; Babcock and Wilcox, a company that builds nuclear power plants, originated in Cleveland and still does nuclear research and supply chain functions in the state. Battelle Memorial is headquartered in Columbus and has extensive experience running laboratories that deal with nuclear power. Wright Patterson AFB in Dayton was home to a reactor that was to fill the same type of mission the NPBS reactor was to fulfill: the development of a nuclear powered bomber.
Reviving and Re-envisioning a Mass Assembly Plant
What would you think of reviving this massive mass assembly plant envisioned at NPBS – minus the nuclear bomber?
All of the positive factors of a mass assembly plant continue to be applicable today, but toward a different and more beneficial end. During the aircraft reactor experiment, the MSR (Molten Salt Reactor) was conceived as the best reactor to put in an airplane because it could be made very small and did not need water as a coolant. Alvin Weinberg, who was the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory at the time (he also owns the patent for today’s modern light water reactors, like the kind at Davis Besse and Perry nuclear power plants in Ohio), became a strong proponent of MSR technology. Dr. Weinberg saw this molten salt reactor technology as the future of civilian nuclear power for producing electricity.
MSRs produce no long-lived nuclear waste, cannot melt down, are inherently safe, and can most easily be adapted for construction on an assembly line. Additionally, these MSRs can be made to consume current nuclear waste stockpiles as a fuel, or use Uranium, Plutonium, or Thorium as a fuel. According to many studies MSRs will produce electricity at half the cost of coal (a very conservative estimate). Because of their low production costs, and because MSRs will produce no carbon emissions, they will improve our environment and give us a leg-up on manufacturing competition in the world market place. This will help to bring back to America millions of jobs that have gone overseas. MSRs can even produce energy cheaply enough to transform our massive reserves of coal into environmentally friendly synthetic gasoline and synthetic diesel fuel that can help make America energy independent, and make the OPEC (Oil Producing and Exporting Countries) irrelevant in determining the price you pay to fill your tank at the gas pump.
Additionally, molten salt reactors can produce the medical isotopes that we do not make here in America. We are dependent upon the rest of the world to create and provide us the isotopes we use here for over 320,000 medical imaging procedures per week, and there are periodic shortages which worry our medical community and potentially harm American patients. MSRs will produce in quantity, isotopes that show the very real potential for curing cancer and HIV AIDS. Abundant and valuable medical imaging Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) radioisotopes could be produced by a small multipurpose liquid-fueled molten-salt reactor (MSR). Additionally, a fleet of commercial scale Utility MSRs could provide Actinium-225 and Bismuth-213 for research and treatment of cancer and HIV AIDS.
Currently, America is helping China develop and commercialize our MSR technology. This is a proven technology, as a molten salt reactor was built and successfully operated at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, without incident, for more than four years in the late 1960s – early 1970s. America just never commercialized the technology. This is the very same technology (MSR Technology) that was envisioned to be commercialized and mass-produced in Ohio at NPBS for the nuclear bomber fleet.
Many organizations and startup companies are encouraging American legislators to jump back into the Molten Salt Reactor race (Flibe Energy, TransAtomics, and ThorCon), as China, Russia, and India have stepped up their efforts to commercialize this American-developed technology. With a change in administrations in Washington, DC, and direction toward adopting a long-term national energy strategy in 2016, together with support from Ohio legislators and our Congressional delegation, America may very well join and win the MSR race. Ohio could be, and arguably should be, the “heart of it all” for a MSR program revival.
Many in Erie County and Huron County (where NPBS is located), had been pressing for NPBS’s massive 6,400 acres to become a wind farm. However, with Ohio’s change on supporting a renewable energy mandate with the passage of Ohio Senate Bill 310 in 2014, and the possible repeal of Ohio Senate Bill 221 in 2015, coupled with the end of the federal wind production tax credit, creation of a wind farm at NPBS is very unlikely.
A very positive use of the facility would be a testing and research facility for development, and mass assembly plant for production of, small modular molten salt reactors that could be shipped around the United States by truck, rail, or ship. Such a mass assembly plant would still be on the order and scale of a Lordstown assembly plant, employing some 5,000 direct jobs in northern Ohio, and indirectly employing 60,000 . [Job numbers have been estimated from a Ford Mass Assembly study].
During 2015, eGeneration Foundation, based in Cleveland, Ohio will be promoting NPBS and Sandusky, Ohio as the best place for the U.S. government to base a Molten Salt Reactor commercialization program. Will Ohio legislators and our Ohio delegation in Congress step forward and openly embrace the development of this technology and manufacturing facility at NPBS? Only the future will reveal this.
Why Produce Molten Salt Reactors in Ohio?
Ohio is one of the most energy abundant states in the country; rich with a diverse array of energy resources ranging from fossil fuels to nuclear based civilian power plants. Ohio’s economy also ranks among the most energy-intensive in the nation, home to energy-dependent industries ranging from agriculture to manufacturing.
At the turn of the 20th century, Ohio was the largest oil producer in the United States. With the Appalachian Basin, which crosses the eastern part of Ohio, and with recent oil and gas formation discoveries, the state may return to being a large oil and natural gas producer. The Basin’s Marcellus shale formation contains shale gas, and the Utica shale formation contains both tight oil locked in shale and gas.
Besides oil and natural gas production, Ohio has long been a perennial coal producer as well. Ohio is currently the 10th largest coal producing state.
Because of Ohio’s energy resources, the state has always supported and benefited from a heavily industrial economy. Today, Ohio’s energy consumption is among the highest in the nation. The industrial sector dominates energy consumption in Ohio, largely due to several energy-intensive industries, including chemicals, glass, metal casting, and steel.
But, Ohio’s energy prices have been steadily rising in comparison to its economic competitors in the same industrial sectors, such as, China, India, and South Korea. This rise in energy costs is primarily caused by federal EPA regulations and the early closure of many coal-fired plants that power Ohio’s economy. As energy costs rise, products produced in Ohio become less competitive in the world marketplace, and that means less revenue, less business, and ultimately a lackluster Ohio economy. Additionally, RPSs (Renewable Portfolio Standards) mandated by the State of Ohio, mandate high-cost clean energy sources. These costs, combined with federal regulations, create a trying atmosphere of competition for manufacturers.
eGeneration’s SAFER Alliance is promoting and pursuing the development of a Department of Energy-envisioned Clean Energy Parks initiative for the development of Gen IV molten salt reactors. NASA Plum Brook Station’s 6,400 acres has high-tension lines running across its property (Davis Besse Nuclear Power Plant’s primary distribution lines) making it a very promising location for a joint NASA/Department of Energy – Clean Energy Park initiative.
To boost NASA Plum Brook’s chances to lure business to the region and create more jobs, civic leaders in the facility’s home base of Erie County, and in Cleveland, where NASA Glenn is located, have tried raising funds to build an airport with a 9,000-foot runway at NPBS without success.
The runway would make it much easier to transport large, bulky spacecraft components and sensitive satellites to Plum Brook for testing.
Currently, such items are flown into airports in Cleveland or Mansfield and trucked 50 to 60 miles to the NASA facility, requiring police escorts and special traffic arrangements. Some potential Plum Brook customers opt to test bits and pieces of their space hardware at smaller government or private facilities individually, rather than transport the full-sized article to Ohio for testing. This piecemeal testing is a costlier process and does not accurately simulate real world conditions.
United Launch Alliance, a Denver-based commercial space launch company, tested the nosecone of its Atlas V rocket in Plum Brook’s largest vacuum chamber in 2002 after flying it into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport aboard a giant Russian cargo jet.
“Certainly having a runway out there would have made that a lot easier,” said United Launch vice president George Sowers.
NASA’s budget doesn’t have the estimated $40 million the Plum Brook runway would cost, nor the additional $40 million or more for roads and other infrastructure to support it.
The runway project “remains one of our highest priorities,” said Carol Caruso, a vice president at the Greater Cleveland Partnership at the time.
Economic development and NASA officials think that the airport, in turn, would be a catalyst for development of a 1,200-acre high-tech business park on Plum Brook land that NASA is willing to lease. The site has railroad and highway access, and ample cheap water, electricity and sewer service.
Erie County Commissioner Patrick Shenigo foresees a cluster of spacecraft and satellite company tenants who want to take advantage of the proximity to Plum Brook’s facilities for quick-turnaround tests, as well as nuclear energy or other research firms that could benefit from NASA’s engineering expertise.
Such business clusters already exist near NASA centers in Florida, Alabama, and Texas.
Currently, about 25 NASA employees work at Plum Brook. If the runway brings more testing work to the center as expected, and its NASA workforce rises to 100, that should generate 475 new commercial jobs in the area and an economic boost of $45 million, according to a 2009 study cited by Commissioner Shenigo in the Sandusky Register.
If a desktop sized molten salt research reactor were to be built onsite, such a reactor could produce enough medical isotopes to supply half of America’s Molybdenum99 (medical isotope) needs. Currently, America depends upon other countries for a vast majority of its Molybdenum 99.
A medical isotope production facility at NASA Plum Brook would generate a large amount of economic activity and an income stream more than sufficient to pay for the construction and operation of an airport necessary for the facility’s operations in distributing medical isotopes throughout the United States in a timely manner. Isotopes produced at the facility would be placed in medical isotope generators and then flown to cities all over the United States for deliver to local hospitals and nuclear pharmacies. Such a medical isotope facility would potentially employ 500 highly skilled workers and professionals, including logistic professionals.
The Congress and the NRC have suspended the rules that otherwise prohibit a test or research reactor from making a profit by allowing such a reactor to produce medical isotopes (Molybdenum 99) because the federal government has recognized an impending Molybdenum 99 shortage crisis.
eGeneration advocates for an NRC permit to allow up to six research size molten salt reactors to be constructed on site at NASA Plum Brook Station for the purposes of research and materials testing, and for the production of Molybdenum-99 medical isotopes.
This group would consist of three reactors to produce Molybdenum-99. These reactors would be heavily outfitted with instrumentation to monitor their internal operational characteristics. This will serve as an information gathering and development tool depicting the behavior of these reactors in normal operation with a high fidelity. In addition to the three MSRs for Molbdenum-99 production, three additional reactors will be built. One reactor will be built to study uranium molten salt fuel, a second reactor will be built to study thorium molten salt fuel, and a third reactor will be built to study the use of traditional nuclear waste as a fuel to produce energy. Concurrent with testing and research being conducted, all of America’s Molybdenum-99 needs could be met by such a NASA Plum Brook Medical isotope facility. This is a $1.5 billion and growing medical isotope market.
The clean energy park concept builds on a DoE initiative to transform DoE sites formerly used to support national defense missions into energy parks focused on future clean energy production. Such initiatives will allow reuse of existing assets, aid in the clean up of these sites, and support sustainable economic development for their respective regions.
Northern Ohio is the location of a major portion of Ohio’s manufacturing base. This is where NASA Plum Brook Station is located. In fact, this NASA site sits directly in the middle of Northern Ohio, an energy production facilities there would be easily shared with manufacturing centers to the west (Toledo, OH) and to the east (Cleveland, OH).
This project is not a walk in the park. It will initially focus on the environmental analysis ultimately necessary to support deployment of Generation IV Molten Salt Reactors, as well as development of licensing documents for submittal to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
The SAFER Alliance believes that a Generation IV molten salt reactor, providing very cheap carbon-free electricity to millions of homes, creates a compelling Clean Energy Park story. MSRs have the potential to significantly reduce energy costs for consumers.
At the Perry Nuclear Power Plant in northeast Ohio, Perry I is one of the most powerful reactors ever built. The utility had plans to build a second reactor on site, but Perry II was only partially completed. With Perry’s infrastructure and its current connections to the electrical grid, the Perry II site would be a very attractive placement for a 1/4 scale pilot MSR producing electricity for the grid.
Piketon, OH Uranium Enrichment Facility
Piketon, Ohio is very close to Ohio’s coal country. It is within the Marcellus shale formation, is in close proximity to many old and non-producing oil wells, and is close to the Utica shale oil formation. The Piketon, Ohio Uranium enrichment facility is a 3,777 acre complex in Southern Ohio, now operated by the Department of Energy, which is in shutdown status. It is the last American owned facility capable of producing commercial quantities of Low Enriched Uranium for use in civilian reactors.
This facility has a long history of working with nuclear materials, and a Duke Energy led alliance is leading efforts to establish a clean energy park and build an Areva-designed Generation III+ reactor there. It makes sense to base a high-temperature full-scale pilot Molten Salt Reactor at this location, as well. There will be a need for quite a bit of research and development into harnessing the heat and electricity produced by an MSR to convert coal into liquid transportation fuels. The Piketon facility could provide the perfect testing grounds for a full-scale pilot reactor with applications in the coal and oil industry. Excess carbon dioxide easily harvested from the production of coal-derived synthetic fuels, powered by MSRs, can be pumped by pipeline to many of Ohio’s thousands of played out oil wells where carbon dioxide is needed to enable enhanced oil recovery. Additionally, the electricity produced by a pilot molten salt reactor plant could be used to convert Natural Gas to synthetic gasoline or methanol.
There is a natural synergy in many respects for the Piketon, OH facility and the production of energy and fuel, and the facility is already owned by the Department of Energy, which will allow the elimination of a lot of red tape.
Financing America’s Economic Recovery
Molten Salt Reactors can be adapted to consume traditional nuclear waste. Producing electricity from nuclear waste is a much better use of that waste than to store it for hundreds of thousands of years. The federal Nuclear Waste fund has in excess of $28 Billion and earns $750 Million in interest every year. Legislators could properly authorize the use of these funds to develop commercial MSR technology in Ohio with the intent to reduce our nuclear waste stockpiles and produce energy.
These small reactors are envisioned to be constructed on an assembly line, and the NASA Plum Brook site would fulfill all of the criteria of a business wanting build an MSR mass assembly plant. Such a plant on the grounds of NASA Plum Brook would potentially directly employ 5,000 workers of various skill sets.
Additionally, there are technologies that are currently not economically viable to transform oil shale (kerogen), coal, other heavy oil deposits, and MSW (Municipal Solid Waste from trash) into oil and synthetic liquid transportation fuels. Their lack of economic viability is due to the cost of the massive amounts of energy required to transform these feedstocks. MSRs can allow for the economic development of these fuel sources.
- Advocating for NASA Plum Brook to host very small research molten salt reactors for the purpose of Molybdenum-99 production, while researching MSR engineering issues, makes sense from a security standpoint, not only for America, but for the world.
- Medical Isotopes (Molybdenum-99) produced from such reactors need to be distributed across North, Central, and South America. This business model can support the construction of an $80 Million airport required for such distribution.
- An airport at NASA Plum Brook means access to much more business for the testing facilities at Plum Brook.
- The NASA Plum Brook grounds are large enough to incorporate a business park that would support the mass assembly of molten salt reactors.
- Perry Nuclear power plant has the capability to support a ¼ scale test reactor that would be needed in the commercialization process of molten salt reactor technology.
- Piketon, Ohio’s uranium enrichment facility has the capability to host a full-scale modular molten salt reactor, which would require testing before initiating assembly line manufacturing of such reactors.
eGeneration is seeking Alliance members that support these initiatives and will be our organizational and funding partners.
Funding efforts will focus on:
- Public education regarding myths and realities of Generation IV nuclear reactors, including molten salt reactors, and their safety and benefits
- Organization of community roundtable discussions on these subjects with governmental and business and manufacturing interests
- Interacting with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s various working groups
- Educating nuclear research and development committees, including governmental, private industry groups, and grassroots organizations
- Economic and feasibility studies
The environmental analysis ultimately necessary to support deployment of Generation IV Molten Salt Reactors, as well as development of licensing and site